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by John Dummelow
1. Colossæ was a town of Phrygia in Asia Minor, situated upon the S. bank of the Lycus, a tributary of the Mæander. Laodicea (Colossians 2:1; Colossians 4:13, Colossians 4:15-16; Revelation 1:11; Revelation 3:14) and Hierapolis (Colossians 4:13) were distant from it eleven and thirteen miles respectively. As these cities grew, Colossæ seems to have declined; for, though Herodotus speaks of it as ’a city of great size,’ and Xenophon as ’a populous city, prosperous and great,’ about the beginning of the Christian era it is mentioned by Strabo as ’a small town.’ In St. Paul’s time, Pliny classes it among the ’most famous towns’ of the district; but he was probably thinking mostly of its past consequence. It is to the Christians in this town that the present Epistle is addressed; and some discussion has arisen as to St. Paul’s previous relations with them. He seems to have written an earlier letter to them (Colossians 4:10) to which Epaphras had brought a reply (Colossians 1:7); but whether he had himself actually visited Colossæ at any time is a matter of doubt. He may have done so on his Third Missionary Journey, when ’he went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order’ (Acts 18:23), or even during his three years’ stay at Ephesus, when ’all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word’ (Acts 19:10), but it is tolerably clear that he had never made a prolonged stay in Colossæ, and was not directly the founder of its Church (Colossians 1:4; Colossians 2:1). Christianity was probably introduced into Colossæ by one of his converts, and Epaphras (Colossians 1:7; Colossians 4:12-13) generally has the honour accorded to him.
2. Occasion of the Epistle. The present letter, which was taken by Tychicus, who was accompanied by Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave (Colossians 4:7, Colossians 4:9), was called forth by a serious danger that threatened the faith of the Colossian Church. The danger arose from a type of false teaching, essentially Jewish in character. It emphasised the importance of sacred seasons, the sabbath, the new moon, the feast day; it laid down certain restrictions as to meats and drinks, made much of circumcision and the Law, and gave an important place to the tradition of men. It insisted on severity to the body, and perhaps claimed to rest upon vision. By its worship of the angels it degraded Christ from His true position as the Head of the body. While the teachers thought too meanly of themselves to seek fellowship with God, and therefore worshipped the angels, they were puffed up with conceit towards men, professing to put a philosophical view of religion in place of the elementary teaching the Colossians had received (Colossians 2:16-23).
The modern reader will find the Epistle easier to understand if he gains some acquaintance with the doctrine of angels current in the Judaism of St. Paul’s time. This doctrine had received a great development in the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Christ. The world was imagined to be full of angels and demons, who presided over all the operations of nature and entered into the closest relations with the life of man. Every blade of grass had its angel, much more the mightier forces and elements of nature. Each nation had its angel, who guided its destiny and fought its battles. The common view that the angels are sinless was unknown, and even the best were not regarded as free from moral imperfections. Owing to the distance which later Jewish theology set between God and the world, it was natural that many should turn for help to the angels, who were ever close at hand and were the actual controllers of the ordinary course of nature and human affairs. It is probable that by ’the elements of the world’ (Colossians 2:8, Colossians 2:20 RV) St. Paul means the elemental spirits, and he considers the whole race of man, both Jewish and Gentile, to have been in subjection to these ’elements,’ ’which by nature were no gods’ (Galatians 4:3-10). This angelic rule found one expression in the life of Israel which is of great importance for our purpose. It was a tenet of Judaism, endorsed also in the New Testament (Acts 7:53 cp. Acts 7:38; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2), that the Law had been given through the angels; accordingly subjection to it meant subjection to them.
A large section of Epaphras’ converts at Colossæ had given their adhesion to the false teaching, and no doubt the sounder portion had written for advice to Epaphras or even to St. Paul, and hence the Epistle before us.
St. Paul does not meet the Colossian heresy by an appeal to the Old Testament, which might have been set aside by allegorical interpretation. He meets it by an appeal to their own experience, and by a statement of the Person and work of Christ, the Son of God and all-sufficient Saviour, and he dwells on them as contradictory to and incompatible with the conceptions entertained by the false teachers. In the Son, who had condescended to become man, there resides, he says, the totality of the divine qualities and powers. Of Himself He is sufficient to form the link uniting God and man together. Where, then, is there room for angelic and other mediators intruding between the lowliness of man and the majesty of God? Christ suffices to bridge the chasm. And how insufficient are angelic beings for such an end! Christ, acting for His Father, has created the universe and is its Head—not any angel. The angels were indeed His creatures. Christ—not any angel—is also the Head of the Church. The Old Dispensation, indeed, had been ’ordained by angels’ (Galatians 3:19), and was under their supervision. But their Dispensation, with its ordinances and rules and observances, was done away with (Ephesians 2:15). Christ had taken the bond of the Old Dispensation (and of every other religion which founds itself on outward observances) and had nailed it to His Cross, superseding by His own operation the inferior work which had been entrusted to the agency of angels. How can it be right to descend to the adoration of angels from the worship of the Lord and Creator of angels, who had shown His superiority to their ’principalities and powers,’ and had ’openly triumphed’ over the Dispensation which they had been allowed to superintend, by the Dispensation inaugurated by the Cross (Colossians 2:14-15). Such an adoration is no sign of humility, but a superstition dishonouring to the gospel and arising from an inability to realise the true relation between God and man, as man is reconciled and adopted in Christ (Colossians 2:18). As to the rules of outward observances in which Judaism delighted, and the injunctions of asceticism which perhaps followed from the misapprehension of the nature of matter, they are of no use as restraints to the flesh, and only lead to a self-conceit which applauds itself for its humility.
The overmastering idea of the greatness of Christ gives their form to some of the practical exhortations which succeed to the argument—’Christ sitteth upon the right hand of God’: ’your life is hid with Christ in God’: ’Christ our life’: ’Christ is all in all’: ’as is fit in the Lord’: ’as to the Lord, and not unto men’: ’the Lord Christ’: ’the mystery of Christ’: ’Epaphras, a servant of Christ’ (Colossians 3:1, Colossians 3:3-4, Colossians 3:11, Colossians 3:18, Colossians 3:23-24; Colossians 4:3, Colossians 4:12).
3. Authorship. There need be no misgiving in accepting the Pauline authorship of the Epistle. The doubts formerly entertained by critics have largely disappeared, and the number continually increases of those who fully admit its genuineness. The time is probably not far distant when this will be regarded as settled by common consent. It used to be said that the false teaching alluded to by St. Paul was a form of that large class of beliefs grouped together under the name of Gnosticism, and therefore that it could not be earlier than the second century. The present writer is convinced that there is not a trace of specific Gnosticism in the Epistle, but even if there were we have good reason to believe that the Gnostic systems of the second century struck their roots into a much earlier time. He also believes that the Essene features found by many scholars in the false teaching are quite imaginary. There is absolutely nothing in that teaching which could not have been given in Colossæ by 59 a.d. or even earlier. Nor is there anything in the writer’s own exposition that contradicts Pauline authorship. His doctrine of Christ and the angels can be matched in nearly every point from St. Paul’s generally accepted Epistles. The style, it is true, differs from that of Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans, but a letter written in the meditative seclusion of a prison is not likely to have the same rapidity of movement or passionate intensity as a letter like Galatians, dashed off at white heat by a missionary immersed in the most distracting activities and fighting with his back to the wall in defence of the gospel. The Epistle was written at the same time as Ephesians and Philemon, possibly during the Apostle’s imprisonment at Cæsarea, but much more probably at Rome. It was in the earlier part of his imprisonment, and also, we may say with tolerable confidence, before the composition of Philippians. The precise date is uncertain, probably 59 a.d. is not far from the mark.
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27