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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Colossians 1

 

 

Verses 1-29

Chapter 1

CHRISTIAN GREETINGS (Colossians 1:1)

1:1 This is a letter from Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and from Timothy, the brother, to the dedicated people of God and faithful brothers in Christ who are in Colosse.

A dedicated Christian cannot write a single sentence without making clear the great beliefs which underlie all his thought. Paul had never actually been in Colosse and so he has to begin by making clear what right he has to send a letter to the Colossians. He does that in one word; he is an apostle. The word apostolos (Greek #652) literally means one who is sent out. Paul's right to speak is that he has been sent out by God to be his ambassador to the Gentiles. Moreover, he is an apostle by the will of God. That office is not something which he has earned or achieved; it is something which has been given him by God. "You did not choose me," said Jesus, "but I chose you" (John 15:16). Here, right at the outset of the letter, is the whole doctrine of grace. A man is not what he has made himself, but what God has made him.

With himself Paul associates Timothy; and he gives him a lovely title. He calls him the brother, a title which is given to Quartus (Romans 16:23); to Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 1:1); to Apollos (1 Corinthians 16:12). The fundamental necessity for Christian service and for Christian office is brotherliness.

Premanand, highborn Indian who became a Christian, tells in his autobiography of Father E. F. Brown of the Oxford Mission in Calcutta. E. F. Brown was every man's friend; but he was specially the friend of the hackney carriage drivers, the carters, the tram conductors, the menial servants, and the hundreds of poor street boys. Later in his life, when he was travelling about India, Premanand would often meet people who had stayed in Calcutta, and they would always ask for E. F. Brown, saying, "Is that friend of the Calcutta street boys still alive, who used to walk arm-in-arm with the poor?" Sir Henry Lunn tells how his father used to describe his grandfather: "He was a friend of the poor without patronage, and of the rich without subservience."

To use our modern idiom, the first necessity for Christian service is the ability to "get alongside" all kinds of people. Timothy is not described as the preacher, the teacher, the theologian, the administrator, but as the brother. He who walks in aloofness can never be a real servant of Jesus Christ.

Another interesting and significant fact is that this opening address is to God's dedicated people and to the faithful brothers in Colosse. In the matter of opening addresses Paul's custom changed. In his earlier letters he always addressed the letter to the Church. I and 2 Thessalonians, I and 2 Corinthians and Galatians are all addressed to the Church of the district to which they are sent. But beginning with Romans his letters are all addressed to God's dedicated people in such and such a place. It is so in Romans, Colossians, Philippians and Ephesians. As Paul grew older, he came more and more to see what matters is individual people. The Church is not a kind of abstract entity; it is individual men and women and children. As the years went on, Paul began to see the Church in terms of individuals hence this style of greeting.

The openings, greeting closes with a most significant placing of two things side by side. He writes to the Christians who are in Colosse and who are in Christ. A Christian always moves in two spheres. He is in a certain place in this world; but he is also in Christ. He lives in two dimensions. He lives in this world whose duties he does not treat lightly; but above and beyond that he lives in Christ. In this world he may move from place to place; but wherever he is, he is in Christ. That is why outward circumstances make little difference to the Christian; his peace and his joy are not dependent on them. That is why he will do any job with all his heart. It may be menial, unpleasant, painful, it may be far less distinguished than he might expect to have; its rewards may be small and its praise non-existent; nevertheless the Christian will do it diligently, uncomplainingly and cheerfully, for he is in Christ and does all things as to the Lord. We are all in our own Colosse, but we are all in Christ, and it is Christ who sets the tone of our living.

THE DOUBLE COMMITMENT (Colossians 1:2-8)

1:2-8 Grace be to you and peace from God our Father. We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for you in our prayers; for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love you have to all God's dedicated people, because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven. Of that hope you have already heard in the true word of the gospel, which has come to you, just as in all the world it is bearing fruit and increasing, just as it did among you too, from that day on which you heard and knew the grace of God as it truly is, as you leamed it from Epaphras, my beloved fellow-bondman, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf, and who has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

Here we are presented with the essence of the Christian life. The fact which delights Paul's heart and for which he gives God thanks is that he has been told that the Colossians are showing two great qualities in their lives, faith in Christ and love for their fellow-men.

These are the two sides of the Christian life. The Christian must have faith; he must know what he believes. But he must also have love for men; he must turn that belief into action. It is not enough simply to have faith, for there can be an orthodoxy which knows no love. It is not enough only to have love for men, for without real belief that love can become mere sentimentality. The Christian has a double commitment--he is committed to Jesus Christ and he is committed to his fellow-men. Faith in Christ and love to men are the twin pillars of the Christian life.

That faith and love depend on the hope that is laid up in heaven. What exactly does Paul mean? Is he asking the Colossians to show faith in Christ and love for men only for the hope of some reward that is going to come to them some day? Is this "pie in the sky"? There is something much deeper than that here.

Think of it this way. Loyalty to Christ may involve a man in all kinds of loss and pain and suffering. There may be many things to which he has to say goodbye. The way of love may seem to many to be the way of a fool. Why spend life in selfless service? Why not use it "to get on" as the world counts getting on? Why not push the weaker brother out of the way? The answer is--because of the hope that is set before us.

As C. F. D. Moule puts it, that hope is the certainty that, in spite of the world's ways, God's way of love has the last word. As James Russell Lowell put it in "The Present Crisis," the hope is that:

Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet 'tis truth alone is strong... Truth for ever on the scaffold, Wrong for ever on the throne; Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

The Christian hope is that God's way is the best way and that the only real peace, the only real joy, the only true and lasting reward are to be found in it. Loyalty to Christ may bring trouble here--but that is not the last word. The world may laugh contemptuously at the folly of the way of love--but the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. The Christian hope is the confidence that it is better to stake one's life on God than to believe the world.

THE ESSENCE OF THE GOSPEL (Colossians 1:2-8 continued)

Colossians 1:6-8 are a kind of summary of what the gospel is and does. Paul has much to say of the hope, to which the Colossians have already listened and which they have already accepted.

(i) The gospel is good news of God. Its message is of a God who is a Friend and Lover of the souls of men. First and foremost, the gospel sets us in a right relationship with God.

(ii) The gospel is truth. All previous religions could be entitled "guesses about God." The Christian gospel gives a man not guesses but certainties about God.

(iii) The gospel is universal. It is for all the world. It is not confined to any one race or nation, nor to any one class or condition. Very few things in this world are open to all men. A man's mental calibre decides the studies he can undertake. A man's social class decides the circle amidst which he will move. A man's material wealth determines the possessions he can amass. A man's particular gifts decide the things he can do. But the message of the gospel is open without exception to all men.

(iv) The gospel is productive. It bears fruit and increases. It is the plain fact of history and experience that the gospel has power to change individual men and the society in which men live. It can change the sinner into a good man and can slowly take the selfishness and the cruelty out of society so that all men may have the chance God would wish them to have.

(v) The gospel tells of grace. It is not so much the message of what God demands as of what he offers. It tells not so much of his demand from men as of his gift to men.

(vi) The gospel is humanly transmitted. It was Epaphras who brought it to the Colossians. There must be a human channel through which the gospel can come to men. And this is where we come in. The possession of the good news of the gospel involves the obligation to share it. That which is divinely given must be humanly passed on. Jesus Christ needs us to be the hands and feet and lips which will bring his gospel to those who have never heard it.

THE ESSENCE OF PRAYER'S REQUEST (Colossians 1:9-11)

1:9-11 That, in fact, is why, from the day we heard about it, we do not cease to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with an ever-growing knowledge of his will, in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may conduct yourselves worthily of the Lord, and in such a way as to be altogether pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the fuller knowledge of God. May you continue to be strengthened with all strength according to his glorious power, so that you may possess all fortitude and patience with joy.

It is a very precious thing to hear the prayers of a saint for his friends; and that is what we hear in this passage. It may well be said that this passage teaches us more about the essence of prayer's request than almost any other in the New Testament. From it we learn, as C. F. D. Moule has said, that prayer makes two great requests. It asks for the discernment of God's will and then for the power to perform that will.

(i) Prayer begins by asking that we may be filled with an ever-growing knowledge of the will of God. Its great object is to know the will of God. We are trying not so much to make God listen to us as to make ourselves listen to him; we are trying not to persuade God to do what we want, but to find out what he wants us to do. It so often happens that in prayer we are really saying, "Thy will be changed," when we ought to be saying, "Thy will be done." The first object of prayer is not so much to speak to God as to listen to him.

(ii) This knowledge of God must be translated into our human situation. We pray for spiritual wisdom and understanding. Spiritual wisdom is sophia (Greek #4678), which we could describe as knowledge of first principles. Understanding is sunesis (Greek #4907), which is what the Greeks sometimes described as critical knowledge, meaning the ability to apply first principles to any given situation which may arise in life. So when Paul prays that his friends may have wisdom and understanding, he is praying that they may understand the great truths of Christianity and may be able to apply them to the tasks and decisions which meet them in everyday living. A man may quite easily be a master of theology and a failure in living; able to write and talk about the eternal truths and yet helpless to apply them to the things which meet him every day. The Christian must know what Christianity means, not in a vacuum but in the business of living.

(iii) This knowledge of God's will, and this wisdom and understanding, must issue in right conduct. Paul prays that his friends may conduct themselves in such a way as to please God. There is nothing in this world so practical as prayer. It is not escape from reality. Prayer and action go hand in hand. We pray not in order to escape life but in order to be better able to meet it.

(iv) To do this we need power. Therefore, Paul prays that his friends may be strengthened with the power of God. The great problem in life is not to know what to do but to do it. For the most part, we are well aware in any given situation what we ought to do; our problem is to put that knowledge into action. What we need is power; and that we receive in prayer. If God merely told us what his will was, that might well be a frustrating situation; but he not only tells us his will, he also enables us to perform it.

Knowledge we ask not, knowledge thou hast lent,

But Lord--the will, there lies our deepest need.

Grant us to build above the high intent--

The deed--the deed.

Through prayer we reach the greatest gift in all the world--knowledge plus power.

THE THREE GREAT GIFTS (Colossians 1:9-11 continued)

What we might call the asking part of Paul's prayer ends with a prayer for three great qualities. He prays that his Colossian friends may possess all fortitude, patience and joy.

Fortitude and patience are two great Greek words which often keep company. Fortitude is hupomone (Greek #5281) and patience is makrothumia (Greek #3115). There is a distinction between these two words. It would not be true to say that Greek always rigidly observes this distinction, but it is there when the words occur together.

Hupomone (Greek #5281) is translated patience in the King James Version. But it does not mean patience in the sense of simply bowing the head and letting the tide of events flow over one. It means not only the ability to bear things, but the ability, in bearing them, to turn them into glory. It is a conquering patience. Hupomone (Greek #5281) is the ability to deal triumphantly with anything that life can do to us.

Makrothumia (Greek #3115) is usually translated long-suffering in the King James Version. Its basic meaning is patience with people. It is the quality of mind and heart which enables a man so to bear with people that their unpleasantness and maliciousness and cruelty will never drive him to bitterness, that their unteachableness will never drive him to despair, that their folly will never drive him to irritation, and that their unloveliness will never alter his love. Makrothumia (Greek #3115) is the spirit which never loses patience with, belief in, and hope for men.

So Paul prays for hupomone (Greek #5281), the fortitude which no situation can defeat, and makrothumia (Greek #3115), the patience which no person can defeat. He prays that the Christian may be such that no circumstances will defeat his strength and no human being defeat his love. The Christian's fortitude in events and patience with people must be indestructible.

Added to all this there is joy. The Christian way is not a grim struggle with events and with people; it is a radiant and sunny-hearted attitude to life. The Christian joy is joy in any circumstances. As C. F. D. Moule puts it: "If joy is not rooted in the soil of suffering, it is shallow." It is easy to be joyful when things go well, but the Christian radiance is something which not all the shadows of life can quench.

So the Christian prayer is: "Make me, O Lord, victorious over every circumstance; make me patient with every person; and withal give me the joy which no circumstance and no man will ever take from me."

PRAYER'S GREAT THANKSGIVING (Colossians 1:12-14)

1:12-14 May you give thanks to the Father, who enabled us to obtain our share of the inheritance of God's dedicated people in the Kingdom of light; for he rescued us from the power of darkness, and brought us over into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins.

Paul turns to grateful thanksgiving for the benefits which the Christian has received in Christ. There are two key ideas here.

(i) God has given to the Colossians a share in the inheritance of God's dedicated people. There is in this whole passage a very close correspondence with Paul's words in Acts when he told Agrippa that the work God had given him was: "To open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in God" (Acts 26:18). The first privilege is that there has been given to the Gentiles a share in the inheritance of the chosen people of God. The Jews had always been God's chosen people, but now the door has been opened to all men.

(ii) The second key idea lies in the phrase which says, as the Revised Standard Version has it, that God has transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, or, as we have translated it, that God has brought us over into the kingdom of his beloved son. The word which Paul uses for to transfer or to bring over is the Greek verb methistemi (Greek #3179). This is a word with a special use. In the ancient world, when one empire won a victory over another, it was the custom to take the population of the defeated country and transfer it lock, stock and barrel to the conqueror's land. Thus the people of the northern kingdom were taken away to Assyria, and the people of the southern kingdom were taken away to Babylon. So Paul says that God has transferred the Christian to his own kingdom. That was not only a transference but a rescue; and it meant four great things.

(a) It meant a transference from darkness to light. Without God men grope and stumble as if walking in the dark. They know not what to do; they know not where they are going. Life is lived in the shadows of doubt and in the darkness of ignorance. When Bilney the martyr read that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, he said that it was like the dawn breaking on a dark night. In Jesus Christ, God has given us a light by which to live and by which to die.

(b) It meant a transference from slavery to freedom. It was redemption, and that was the word used for the emancipation of a slave and for the buying back of something which was in the power of someone else. Without God men are slaves to their fears, to their sins and slaves to their own helplessness. In Jesus Christ there is liberation.

(c) It meant a transference from condemnation to forgiveness. Man in his sin deserves nothing but the condemnation of God; but through the work of Jesus Christ he discovers God's love and forgiveness. He knows now that he is no longer a condemned criminal at God's judgment seat, but a lost son for whom the way home is always open.

(d) It meant a transference from the power of Satan to the power of God Through Jesus Christ man is liberated from the grip of Satan and is able to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Just as an earthly conqueror transferred the citizens of the land he had conquered to a new land, so God in his triumphant love transfers men from the realm of sin and darkness into the realm of holiness and light.

THE TOTAL ADEQUACY OF JESUS CHRIST (Colossians 1:15-23)

1:15-23 He is the image of the invisible God, begotten before all creation, because by him all things were created, in heaven and upon earth, the things which are visible and the things which are invisible, whether thrones or lordships or powers or authorities. All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things cohere. He is the head of the body, that is, of the Church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that he might be supreme in all things. For in him God in all his fullness was pleased to take up his abode, and through him to reconcile all things to himself, when he had made peace through the blood of his Cross. This was done for all things, whether on the earth or in the heavens. And you, who were once estranged and hostile in your minds, in the midst of evil deeds, he has now reconciled in the body of his flesh, through his death, in order to present you before him consecrated, unblemished, irreproachable, if only you remain grounded and established in the faith, not shifting from the hope of the gospel which you have heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, have been made a servant.

This is a passage of such difficulty and of such importance that we shall have to spend considerable time on it. We shall divide what we must say about it into certain sections and we begin with the situation which gave it birth and with the whole view of Christ which Paul sets out in the letter.

(1) THE MISTAKEN THINKERS (Colossians 1:15-23 continued)

It is one of the facts of the human mind that a man thinks only as much as he has to. It is not until a man finds his faith opposed and attacked that he really begins to think out its implications. It is not until the Church is confronted with some dangerous heresy that she begins to realize the riches of orthodoxy. It is characteristic of Christianity that it can always produce new riches to meet a new situation.

When Paul wrote Colossians, he was not writing in a vacuum. He was writing, as we have already seen in the introduction, to meet a very definite situation. There was a tendency of thought in the early Church called Gnosticism. Its devotees were called Gnostics, which more or less means the intellectual ones. These men were dissatisfied with what they considered the rude simplicity of Christianity and wished to turn it into a philosophy and to align it with the other philosophies which held the field at that time.

The Gnostics began with the basic assumption that matter was altogether evil and spirit altogether good. They further held that matter was eternal and that it was out of this evil matter that the world was created. The Christian, to use the technical phrase, believes in creation out of nothing; the Gnostic believed in creation out of evil matter.

Now God was spirit and if spirit was altogether good and matter essentially evil, it followed, as the Gnostic saw it, that the true God could not touch matter and, therefore, could not himself be the agent of creation. So the Gnostics believed that God put forth a series of emanations, each a little further away from God until at last there was one so distant from God, that it could handle matter and create the world.

The Gnostics went further. As the emanations went further and further from God, they became more and more ignorant of him. And in the very distant emanations there was not only ignorance of God, but also hostility to him. The Gnostics came to the conclusion that the emanation who created the world was both ignorant of and hostile to the true God; and sometimes they identified that emanation with the God of the Old Testament.

This has certain logical consequences.

(i) As the Gnostics saw it, the creator was not God but someone hostile to him; and the world was not God's world but that of a power hostile to him. That is why Paul insists that God did create the world, and that his agent in creation was no ignorant and hostile emanation but Jesus Christ, his Son (Colossians 1:16).

(ii) As the Gnostics saw it, Jesus Christ was by no means unique. We have seen how they postulated a whole series of emanations between the world and God. They insisted that Jesus was merely one of these emanations. He might stand high in the series; he might even stand highest; but he was only one of many. Paul meets this by insisting that in Jesus Christ all fullness dwells (Colossians 1:19); that in him there is the fullness of the godhead in bodily form (Colossians 2:9). One of the supreme objects of Colossians is to insist that Jesus is utterly unique and that in him there is the whole of God.

(iii) As the Gnostics saw it, this had another consequence with regard to Jesus. If matter was altogether evil, it followed that the body was altogether evil. It followed further that he who was the revelation of God, could not have had a real body. He could have been nothing more than a spiritual phantom in bodily form. The Gnostics completely denied the real manhood of Jesus. In their own writings they, for instance, set it down that when Jesus walked, he left no footprints on the ground. That is why Paul uses such startling phraseology in Colossians. He speaks of Jesus reconciling man to God in his body of flesh (Colossians 1:22); he says that the fullness of the godhead dwelt in him bodily. In opposition to the Gnostics, Paul insisted on the flesh and blood manhood of Jesus.

(iv) The task of man is to find his way to God. As the Gnostics saw it, that way was barred. Between this world and God there was this vast series of emanations. Before the soul could rise to God, it had to get past the barrier of each of these emanations. To pass each barrier special knowledge and special passwords were needed; it was these passwords and that knowledge that the Gnostics claimed to give. This meant two things.

(a) It meant that salvation was intellectual knowledge. To meet that Paul insists that salvation is not knowledge; it is redemption and the forgiveness of sins. The Gnostic teachers held that the so-called simple truths of the gospel were not nearly enough. To find its way to God the soul needed far more than that; it needed the elaborate knowledge and the secret passwords which Gnosticism alone could give. So Paul insists that nothing more is needed than the saving truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

(b) If salvation depended on this elaborate knowledge, it was clearly not for every man but only for the intellectual. So the Gnostics divided mankind into the spiritual and the earthly; and only the spiritual could be truly saved. Full salvation was beyond the scope of the ordinary man. It is with that in mind that Paul wrote the great verse Colossians 1:28. It was his aim to warn every man and to teach every man, and so to present every man mature in Christ Jesus. Against a salvation possible for only a limited intellectual minority, Paul presents a gospel which is for every man, however simple and unlettered or however wise and learned he may be.

These, then, were the great Gnostic doctrines; and all the time we are studying this passage, and indeed the whole letter, we must have them in our mind, for only against them does Paul's language become intelligible and relevant.

(2) WHAT JESUS CHRIST IS IN HIMSELF (Colossians 1:15-23 continued)

In this passage Paul says two great things about Jesus, both of which are in answer to the Gnostics. The Gnostics had said that Jesus was merely one among many intermediaries and that, however great he might be, he was only a partial revelation of God.

(i) Paul says that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Here he uses a word and a picture which would waken all kinds of memories in the minds of those who heard it. The word is eikon (Greek #1504), and image is its correct translation. Now, as Lightfoot points out, an image can be two things which merge into each other. It can be a representation; but a representation, if it is perfect enough, can become a manifestation. When Paul uses this word, he lays it down that Jesus is the perfect manifestation of God. To see what God is like, we must look at Jesus. He perfectly represents God to men in a form which they can see and know and understand. But it is what is behind this word that is of entrancing interest.

(a) The Old Testament and the inter-testamental books have a great deal to say about Wisdom. In Proverbs the great passages on Wisdom are in Proverbs 2:1-22 and Proverbs 8:1-36 . There Wisdom is said to be co-eternal with God and to have been with God when he created the world. Now in the Wisdom of Solomon 7:26, eikon (Greek #1504) is used of Wisdom; Wisdom is the image of the goodness of God. It is as if Paul turned to the Jews and said, "All your lives you have been thinking and dreaming and writing about this divine Wisdom, which is as old as God, which made the world and which gives wisdom to men. In Jesus Christ this Wisdom has come to men in bodily form for all to see." Jesus is the fulfilment of the dreams of Jewish thought.

(b) The Greeks were haunted by the thought of the Logos (Greek #3056), the word, the reason of God. It was that Logos which created the world, which put sense into the universe, which kept the stars in their courses, which made this a dependable world, which put a thinking mind into man. This very word eikon (Greek #1504) is used again and again by Philo of the Logos of God. "He calls the invisible and divine Logos, which only the mind can perceive, the image (eikon, Greek #1504) of God" (Philo: Concerning the Creator of the World: 8). It is as if Paul said to the Greeks: "For the last six hundred years you have dreamed and thought and written about the reason, the mind, the word, the Logos of God; you called it God's eikon (Greek #1504); in Jesus Christ that Logos has come plain for all to see. Your dreams and philosophies are all come true in him."

(c) In these connections of the word eikon (Greek #1504) we have been moving in the highest realms of thought, where only the philosophers can move familiarly. But there are two much simpler connections which would immediately flash across the minds of those who heard or read this for the first time. Their minds would at once go back to the creation story. There the old story tells of the culminating act of creation. "God said, Let us make man in our image.... So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him" (Genesis 1:26-27). Here indeed is illumination. Man was made that he might be nothing less than the eikon (Greek #1504) of God, for the word in the Genesis story is the same. That is what man was meant to be, but sin came in and man never achieved his destiny. By using this word of Jesus, Paul in effect says, "Look at this Jesus. He shows you not only what God is; he also shows you what man was meant to be. Here is manhood as God designed it. Jesus is the perfect manifestation of God and the perfect manifestation of man." There is in Jesus Christ the revelation of godhead and the revelation of manhood.

(d) But we come at last to something much simpler than any of these things. And there is no doubt that many of the simpler of Paul's readers would think of this. Even if they knew nothing of the Wisdom Literature and nothing of Philo and nothing of the Genesis story they would know this.

Eikon (Greek #1504)--sometimes in its diminutive form eikonion--was the word which was used for a portrait in Greek. There is a papyrus letter from a soldier lad called Apion to his father Epimachus. Near the end he writes: "I send you a little portrait (eikonion) of myself painted by Euctemon." It is the nearest equivalent in ancient Greek to our word photograph. But this word had still another use. When a legal document was drawn up, such as a receipt or an IOU, it always included a description of the chief characteristics and distinguishing marks of the contracting parties, so that there could be no mistake. The Greek word for such a description is eikon (Greek #1504). The eikon (Greek #1504), therefore, was a kind of brief summary of the personal characteristics and distinguishing marks of the contracting parties. So, then, to the very simplest Paul is saying, "You know how if you enter into a legal agreement, there is included an eikon (Greek #1504), a description by which you may be recognized. Jesus is the portrait of God. In him you see the personal characteristics and the distinguishing marks of God. If you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus."

(ii) The other word Paul uses is in Colossians 1:19. He says that Jesus is the pleroma (Greek #4138) of God. Pleroma (Greek #4138) means fullness, completeness. This is the word which is needed to complete the picture. Jesus is not simply a sketch of God or a summary and more than a lifeless portrait of him. In him there is nothing left out; he is the full revelation of God, and nothing more is necessary.

(3) WHAT JESUS CHRIST IS TO CREATION (Colossians 1:15-23 continued)

We will remember that according to the Gnostics the work of creation was carried out by an inferior god, ignorant of and hostile to the true God. It is Paul's teaching that God's agent in creation is the Son and in this passage he has four things to say of the Son in regard to creation.

(i) He is the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15). We must be very careful to attach the right meaning to this phrase. As it stands in English it might well mean the Son was the first person to be created, but in Hebrew and Greek thought the word firstborn (prototokos, Greek #4416) has only very indirectly a time significance. There are two things to note. Firstborn is very commonly a title of honour. Israel, for instance, as a nation is the firstborn son of God (Exodus 4:22). The meaning is that the nation of Israel is the most favoured child of God. Second, we must note that firstborn is a title of the Messiah. In Psalms 89:27, as the Jews themselves interpreted it, the promise regarding the Messiah is "I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth." Clearly firstborn is not used in a time sense at all, but in the sense of special honour. So when Paul says of the Son that he is the firstborn of all creation, he means that the highest honour which creation holds belongs to him. If we wish to keep the time sense and the honour sense combined, we may translate the phrase: "He was begotten before all creation."

(ii) It was by the Son that all things were created (Colossians 1:16). This is true of things in heaven and things in earth, of things seen and unseen. The Jews themselves, and even more the Gnostics, had a highly-developed system of angels. With the Gnostics that was only to be expected with their long series of intermediaries between man and God. Thrones, lordships, powers and authorities were different grades of angels having their places in different spheres of the seven heavens. Paul dismisses them all with complete indifference. He is in effect saying to the Gnostics, "You give a great place in your thinking to angels. You rate Jesus Christ merely as one of them. So far from that, he created them." Paul lays it down that the agent of God in creation is no inferior, ignorant and hostile secondary god, but the Son himself.

(iii) It was for the Son that all things were created (Colossians 1:17). The Son is not only the agent of creation, he is also the goat of creation. That is to say, creation was created to be his and that in its worship and its love he might find his honour and his joy.

(iv) Paul uses the strange phrase: "In him all things hold together." This means that not only is the Son the agent of creation in the beginning and the goat of creation in the end, but between the beginning and the end, during time as we know it, it is he who holds the world together. That is to say, all the laws by which this world is order and not chaos are an expression of the mind of the Son. The law of gravity and the rest, the laws by which the universe hangs together, are not only scientific laws but also divine.

So, then, the Son is the beginning of creation, and the end of creation, and the power who holds creation together, the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Final Goal of the world.

(4) WHAT JESUS CHRIST IS TO THE CHURCH (Colossians 1:15-23 continued)

Paul sets out in verse 18 what Jesus Christ is to the Church; and he distinguishes four great facts in that relationship.

(i) He is the head of the body, that is, of the Church. The Church is the body of Christ, that is, the organism through which he acts and which shares all his experiences. But, humanly speaking, the body is the servant of the head and is powerless without it. So Jesus Christ is the guiding spirit of the Church; it is at his bidding that the Church must live and move. Without him the Church cannot think the truth, cannot act correctly, cannot decide its direction. There are two things combined here. There is the idea of privilege. It is the privilege of the Church to be the instrument through which Christ works. There is the idea of warning. If a man neglects or abuses his body, he can make it unfit to be the servant of the great purposes of his mind; so by indisciplined and careless living the Church can unfit herself to be the instrument of Christ, who is her head.

(ii) He is the beginning of the Church. The Greek word for beginning is arche (Greek #746), which means beginning in a double sense. It means not only first in the sense of time, as, for instance, A is the beginning of the alphabet and I is the beginning of the series of numbers. It means first in the sense of the source from which something carne, the moving power which set something in operation. We will see more clearly what Paul is getting at, if we remember what he has just said. The world is the creation of Christ; and the Church is the new creation of Christ.

She is his new creation

By water and the word.

Christ is the, source of the Church's life and being and the director of her continued activity.

(iii) He is the firstborn from among the dead. Here Paul comes back to the event which was at the centre of all the thinking and belief and experience of the Early Church--the Resurrection. Christ is not merely someone who lived and died and of whom we read and learn. He is someone who, because of his Resurrection, is alive for evermore and whom we meet and experience, not a dead hero nor a past founder, but a living presence.

(iv) The result of all this is that he has the supremacy in all things. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is his title to supreme lordship. By his Resurrection he has shown that he has conquered every opposing power and that there is nothing in life or in death which can bind him.

So there are four great facts about Jesus Christ in his relationship to the Church, which now we can put in order. He is the living Lord; he is the source and origin of the Church; he is the constant director of the Church; and he is the Lord of all, by virtue of his victory over death.

(5) WHAT JESUS CHRIST IS TO ALL THINGS (Colossians 1:15-23 continued)

In Colossians 1:19-20 Paul sets down certain great truths about the work of Christ for the whole universe.

(i) The object of his coming was reconciliation. He came to heal the breach and bridge the chasm between God and man. We must note one thing quite clearly and always retain it in our memories. The initiative in reconciliation was with God. The New Testament never talks of God being reconciled to men, but always of men being reconciled to God. God's attitude to men was love, and it was never anything else. Sometimes a theology is preached which implies that something that Jesus did changed God's attitude from wrath into love. There is no justification in the New Testament for any such view. It was God who began the whole process of salvation. It was because God so loved the world that he sent his Son. His one object in sending his Son into this world was to woo men back to himself and, as Paul puts it, to reconcile all things to himself.

(ii) The medium of reconciliation was the blood of the Cross. The dynamic of reconciliation was the death of Jesus Christ. What does Paul mean? He means exactly what he said in Romans 8:32 : "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?" In the death of Jesus, God is saying to us, "I love you like that. I love you enough to see my Son suffer and die for you." The Cross is the proof that there is no length to which the love of God will refuse to go in order to win men's hearts; and a love like that demands an answering love. If the Cross will not waken love in men's hearts, nothing will.

(iii) We must note that Paul says that in Christ God was reconciling all things to himself. The Greek is a neuter (panta, Greek #3956). The point is that the reconciliation of God extends not only to all persons but to all creation, animate and inanimate. The vision of Paul was a universe in which not only the people but the very things were redeemed. This is an amazing thought. There is no doubt that Paul was thinking of the Gnostics. We will remember that they, regarding matter as essentially and incurably evil, therefore regarded the world as evil. But, as Paul sees it, the world is not evil. It is God's world and shares in the universal reconciliation.

There is a lesson and a warning here. Too often in Christianity there has been suspicion of the world. "Earth is a desert drear." We remember the story of the Puritan. Someone said to him, as they walked along the road, "That's a lovely flower". And the Puritan answered, "I have learned to call nothing lovely in this lost and sinful world." So far from being Christian, that attitude is in fact heresy. It was the very attitude of the Gnostic heretics who threatened to destroy the faith. This is God's world and it is a redeemed world, for in some amazing way God in Christ was reconciling the whole universe of men and living creatures and even inanimate things to himself.

(iv) The passage ends with a curious little phrase. Paul says that this reconciliation extended not only to things on earth but also to things in heaven. How was it that any reconciliation was necessary for heavenly things? This has exercised the ingenuity of many commentators; let us look at some of the explanations.

(a) It has been suggested that even the heavenly places and the angels there were under sin and needed to be reconciled to God. In Job we read: "His angels he charges with error" (Job 4:18). "The heavens are not clean in his sight" (Job 15:15). So it is suggested that even the angelic beings needed the reconciliation of the Cross.

(b) Origen, the great universalist, thought that the phrase referred to the devil and his angels and he believed that in the end even they would be reconciled to God through the work of Jesus Christ.

(c) It has been suggested that when Paul said that the reconciling work of Christ extended to all things in earth and in heaven, he did not mean anything definite but was simply using a magnificent and sonorous phrase in which the complete adequacy of the reconciling work of Christ was set out.

(d) The most interesting suggestion was made by Theodoret and followed by Erasmus. It was that the point is not that the heavenly angels were reconciled to God, but that they were reconciled to men. The suggestion is that the angels were angry with men for what they had done to God and wished to destroy them; and the work of Christ took away their wrath when they saw how much God still loved men.

However these things may be, this much is certain, God's aim was to reconcile men to himself in Jesus Christ, the medium by which he did so was the death of Christ which proved that there were no limits to his love, and that reconciliation extends to all the universe, earth and heaven alike.

(6) THE AIM AND OBLIGATION OF RECONCILIATION (Colossians 1:15-23 continued)

In Colossians 1:21-23 are set out the aim and the obligation of reconciliation.

(i) The aim of reconciliation is holiness. Christ carried out his sacrificial work of reconciliation in order to present us to God consecrated and irreproachable. It is easy to twist the idea of the love of God and to say, "Well, if God loves me like this and wishes nothing but reconciliation, sin does not matter. I can do what I like and God will still love me." The reverse is true. The fact that a man is loved does not give him carte blanche to do as he likes; it lays upon him the greatest obligation in the world, the obligation of being worthy of that love. In one sense the love of God makes things easy, for it takes away our fear of him and assures us that we are no longer criminals at the bar of judgment, certain of nothing but condemnation. But in another sense it makes things agonizingly and almost impossibly difficult, for it lays upon us this ultimate obligation of seeking to be worthy of that love.

(ii) Reconciliation has another kind of obligation, that of standing fast in the faith and never abandoning the hope of the gospel. Reconciliation demands that through sunshine and through shadow we should never lose confidence in the love of God. Out of the wonder of reconciliation are born the strength of unshakable loyalty and the radiance of unconquerable hope.

THE PRIVILEGE AND THE TASK (Colossians 1:24-29)

1:24-29 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and in my flesh, for the sake of his body, I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. By his body, I mean the Church, of which I was made a servant, according to the office which God gave me to exercise for your sakes. That office is to make the word of God fully known, that secret which has remained hidden throughout all the ages and the generations, but which has now been made manifest to God's dedicated people; for God desired to make known to them how great was the glorious wealth among the Gentiles of this secret now revealed, and that secret is, Christ in you, your glorious hope. It is that Christ whom we proclaim, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. That is the end for which I toil, striving with his energy, which works mightily within me.

Paul begins this passage with a daring thought. He thinks of the sufferings through which he is passing as completing the sufferings of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus died to save his Church; but the Church must be upbuilt and extended; it must be kept strong and pure and true; therefore, anyone who serves the Church by widening her borders, establishing her faith, saving her from errors, is doing the work of Christ. And if such service involves suffering and sacrifice, that affliction is filling up and sharing the very suffering of Christ. To suffer in the service of Christ is not a penalty but a privilege, for it is sharing in his work.

Paul sets out the very essence of the task which has been given him by God. That task was to bring to men a new discovery, a secret kept throughout the ages and the generations and now revealed. This was that the glorious hope of the gospel was not only for the Jews but for all men everywhere. Paul's great contribution to the Christian faith was that he took Christ to the Gentiles and destroyed for ever the idea that God's love and mercy were the property of any one people or any one nation. That is why Paul is in a special sense our saint and our apostle. Had it not been for him Christianity might have become nothing wider than a new Judaism, and we and all other Gentiles might never have received it.

So Paul sets down his great aim. It is to warn every man, and to teach every man, and to present every man complete in Christ.

The Jew would never have agreed that God had any use for every man; he would have refused to accept that he was the God of the Gentiles. This idea would have seemed incredible and even blasphemous. The Gnostic would never have agreed that every man could be warned and taught and presented complete to God. He believed that the knowledge necessary for salvation was so involved and difficult that it must be the possession of the spiritual aristocracy and the chosen few. E. J. Goodspeed quotes a passage from Walter Lipman's Preface to Morals: "As yet no teacher has ever appeared who was wise enough to know how to teach his wisdom to all mankind. In fact, the great teachers have attempted nothing so utopian. They were quite well aware how difficult for most men is wisdom, and they have confessed frankly that the perfect life was for the select few. It is arguable, in fact, that the very idea of teaching the highest wisdom to all men is the recent notion of a humanitarian and romantically democratic age, and that it is quite foreign to the thought of all great teachers." It has always been the case that men have openly or tacitly agreed that wisdom is not for every one.

The fact is that the only thing in this world which is for every man is Christ. It is not every man who can be a thinker. There are gifts which are not granted to every man. Not every man can master every craft, or even every game. There are those who are colour-blind and to whom the loveliness of art means nothing. There are those who are tone-deaf and for whom the glory of music does not exist. Not every man can be a writer or a student or a preacher or a singer. Even human love at its highest is not granted to all men. There are gifts a man will never possess; there are privileges a man will never enjoy; there are heights of this world's attainment which a man will never scale; but to every man there is open the good news of the gospel, the love of God in Christ Jesus and the trans-forming power which can bring holiness into life.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Colossians 1:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/colossians-1.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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