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(1) SALUTATION (Colossians 1:1-2).
(2) THANKSGIVING, for their faith and love and hope, with an emphatic reference to the “word of the truth of the gospel” as first preached unto them in all faithfulness by Epaphras, the fellow-servant and representative of the Apostle (Colossians 1:3-8).
(3) PRAYER that they may have further knowledge, and fruitfulness in good works, being strengthened to endurance, and encouraged by the hope of heaven (Colossians 1:9-12).]
This chapter contains the main substance of the characteristic doctrine of the Epistle; to which, however, St. Paul returns in the next chapter, enforcing it with special application to the circumstances of the Colossian church, and special warning against a peculiar form of half-Judaic and half-Gnostic error. It should be compared throughout with Ephesians 1:2, Ephesians 1:3. On such comparison, we find, on the one hand, a strong general similarity both of thought and expression; on the other hand, a marked difference in the subject to which main prominence is given. The first glance discovers that both Epistles dwell emphatically on Christ the Head, and the unity of all as one Body in Him. But a more thoughtful consideration will show that in this Epistle the main stress is on the headship of Christ; in the Ephesian Epistle, on the unity and glory of the Church as His body.
(1) Timotheus our brother.—Except in the mention of Timotheus (as in the other Epistles of the captivity; see Philippians 1:1; Philemon 1:1), the salutation is almost verbally coincident with the opening of the Epistle to the Ephesians (where see Note). The mention of Timotheus here, and the omission of his name there, mark the difference in character between the two Epistles. In a special Epistle like this Timotheus would be joined with St. Paul as usual. In a general Epistle to the churches of Asia, the Apostle alone could rightly speak.
(2) From God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.—The best MSS. show here, that the salutation should run simply “from God the Father,” thus varying from St. Paul’s otherwise universal phraseology. Such variation can hardly be accidental. Could it have been suggested to St. Paul’s mind, in connection with his special desire to emphasize the true Godhead of Christ, so obvious in this Epistle, by an instinctive reluctance to use in this case any phrase, however customary with him, which might even seem to distinguish His nature from the Godhead? It is certainly notable that in the true reading of Colossians 2:2 Christ is called “the mystery of God, even the Father”—an unique and remarkable expression, which marks a preparation for the full understanding of the teaching of our Lord, “He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9).
(3, 4) Comp. Ephesians 1:15-16, where there is an almost exact verbal coincidence. Whatever may be the force there of the words “having heard of your faith,” clearly here they harmonise with many indications that the Colossian Church, though well known to St. Paul, was not known by personal knowledge.
(3-8) In this expression of St. Paul’s thanksgiving for them there is as usual a peculiar correspondence to their circumstances. They had been full of faith, love, and hope, the fruit of a true gospel preached by Epaphras; there was fear now lest they should be beguiled from it, although that fear was obviously not yet realised, as had been formerly the case with the Galatians. Hence St. Paul’s emphasis on their hearing, knowing, and learning the truth, and on the faithfulness of Epaphras as a minister of Christ.
(5) For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven.—The union of hope with faith and love is natural enough. Compare the fuller expression of 1 Thessalonians 1:3, “your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope.” But the place assigned to hope in this passage is notable. “For the hope” is really “on account of the hope.” Hence faith and love are spoken of, not merely as leading up to hope, but as being actually kindled by it. Similarly in Ephesians 1:18 we find that, while faith and love are taken for granted, there is a special prayer that they may be enlightened “to know the hope of His calling” as the one thing yet needful. The prominence given to the thought of “the heavenly places” in the Epistles of the captivity, and therefore to Christ in heaven, even more than to Christ risen, is evident to any careful student. Accordingly, the hope, which is the instinct of perfection in man, and which becomes realisation of heaven in the Christian, naturally comes out with corresponding emphasis.
Ye heard before.—That is, at their first conversion. There is an implied warning against the new doctrines, which are more fully noticed in the next chapter.
The truth of the gospel.—This expression (as in Galatians 2:14) is emphatic. It refers to the gospel, not chiefly as a message of graciousness and mercy, but rather as a revelation of eternal truths, itself changeless as the truth it reveals. There is a corresponding emphasis, but stronger still, in St. John. (See, for example, 1 John 2:27; 1 John 5:20; 2 John 1:1-4; 3 John 1:2-3.) The gospel was now winning its way to supremacy over civilised thought. Hence the need of warning against the sudden growth of wild speculations, contrasted with the unchanging simplicity of its main truths.
(6) Which is come unto you . . .—There is much variety of reading here, but the text followed by our version is certainly incorrect. The probable reading is, which is come unto you, just as in all the world it is now bringing forth fruit and growing, as also it does in you. In this sentence there are two lessons implied. First, the universality of the gospel, in which it stands contrasted, as with all local and national religions, whether of Judaism or of Paganism, so also with the secret doctrines of Gnostic speculation, intelligible only to the initiated few. Next, the test of its reality both by practical fruit of action, and by the spiritual growth connected therewith. In relation to the former, “faith without works” is “dead”; in relation to the other it is “imperfect,” needing to be developed into maturity (James 2:20; James 2:22). Both these lessons were evidently needed, in consequence of the appearance at Colossæ of the occult mysticism and the unpractical speculation noted in Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:10; Colossians 2:18. But the Church itself was still faithful. Hence the last words, “as also it does in you,” turning back again to Colossæ in particular, are an insertion of kindly courtesy—one of the insertions of apparent afterthought not unfrequent in St. Paul’s Epistles—intended to show that the implied warning is by no means a condemnation.
(7) Ye also learned of Epaphras.—Of Epaphras we know nothing, except what we gather from this passage, and from Colossians 4:12; Philemon 1:23. The name is a shortened form of Epaphroditus, but it is most unlikely that he is the same as the Epaphroditus of Philippians 2:25; Philippians 4:18. Being, it seems, a native of Colossæ itself, he was apparently its first evangelist, and is afterwards described as feeling some responsibility for it and its neighbouring cities, Laodicea and Hierapolis (Colossians 4:13). His work could not have been transient, for under him the Colossians are said not only to have “heard,” but also to have “known” (come to know perfectly) “the grace of God.” St. Paul here gives emphatic testimony to his faithfulness, and to his preaching to them “in truth.” That he was, then or afterwards. Bishop of Colossæ is probably a mere guess of tradition. But he may have had some such charge as that which was afterwards more formally committed to Timothy at Ephesus, and Titus in Crete. At this time, however, he remained with St. Paul (Colossians 4:12-13), and apparently shared his captivity, for he is called (in Philemon 1:23) his “fellow-prisoner.”
Who is for you a faithful minister of Christ.—(1) “For you” is, properly, on your behalf. This has been supposed to mean that Epaphras, like his Philippian namesake, had been a representative of the Colossian Church, in ministry to the Apostle; but this is hardly compatible with the entire absence of any personal reference in the sentence. Contrast Philemon 1:13, “that on thy behalf he might minister to me.” If this reading, therefore, is to stand, “on your behalf” must be taken to signify generally “for your benefit,” which is doubtless the meaning of our version. (2) But there is considerable, perhaps preponderating, MS. authority for the reading “on our behalf,” that is, in our stead. This makes Epaphras a representative, perhaps an actual messenger, of St. Paul, for the conversion of the church at Colossæ; sent probably at the time when the Apostle had his head-quarters at Ephesus, and when “all that dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:10). This interpretation not only gives greater force to this passage, but explains also the attitude of authority here assumed by St. Paul toward a church which he had not seen, differing so markedly from the tone of his Epistle to the Romans in a like case.
(8) Who also declared unto us.—This refers to news recently brought by Epaphras to St. Paul at Rome. He had been a minister in St. Paul’s stead; he now, like Timothy afterwards, visited him to give account of his deputed work.
Your love in the Spirit.—“In the Spirit” is “in the grace of the Holy Ghost”—the Spirit of love. The love here would seem to be especially love towards St. Paul, a part of the “love towards all the saints” ascribed to them above (Colossians 1:4).
(9) Do not cease to pray for you.—Comp. Ephesians 1:16. “To pray” (see Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 4:6) is the general word for “to worship”; “to desire” indicates prayer, properly so called, asking from God what is requisite and necessary for ourselves or for others.
The knowledge of his will.—The “knowledge” here spoken of is the “full knowledge,” to be attained in measure here, to be made perfect in heaven. See 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now I know in part; but then shall I know (perfectly) even as I am known.” On this word, especially frequent in the Epistles of the captivity, see Note on Ephesians 1:17. It should be noted that the knowledge here prayed for is “the knowledge of God’s will”—not speculation as to the nature of God, or as to emanations from Deity, or even as to the reasons of God’s mysterious counsels, but knowledge of what actually is His will, both in the dispensation which is to be accepted in faith, and in the commandments to be obeyed in love. So St. Paul (in 1 Timothy 1:4-5) contrasts with the “fables and endless genealogies” of Gnostic speculation, “the end of the commandment,” “charity out of a pure heart and a good conscience, and faith unfeigned.”
In all wisdom and spiritual understanding.—This “knowledge of God’s will” is man’s “wisdom.” For “wisdom” is the knowledge of the true end of life; which is (as the Book of Ecclesiastes so tragically shows) vainly sought, if contemplated apart from God’s will, but found (see Ecclesiastes 12:13; Job 28:28; Proverbs 1:7) in the “fear of the Lord” and the “keeping of His commandments.” (On the relation of the supreme gift of wisdom to lesser cognate gifts, see Note on Ephesians 1:8.) “Understanding” here is properly the faculty of spiritual insight or judgment, the speculative exercise of wisdom, as the “prudence” of Ephesians 1:8 is the practical. Hence St. Paul subjoins the practical element at once in the next verse.
(9-12) From thanksgiving St. Paul passes, as always, to pray for them. The prayer is for their full and perfect knowledge of God’s will; but this is emphatically connected with practical “walking” in that will, first by fruitfulness in good work, next by showing themselves strong in Christ to endure sufferings, lastly by thankful acceptance of God’s call to inheritance among the saints in light. There is a hearty recognition of the blessing of knowledge (on which the incipient Gnosticism of the day was so eloquent); but it is to be tried by the three tests of practical goodness, patience, and thankful humility.
(10) Walk worthy (worthily) of the Lord. Here St. Paul begins to dwell on the practical life, much in the same spirit in which, in Ephesians 4:1, he returns from the profound thought of Colossians 2:3 to the entreaty “to walk worthy of the vocation with which they are called.” “The Lord” is here, as usual, the Lord Jesus Christ; to walk worthy of Him is to have His life reproduced in us, to follow His example, to have “the mind of Christ Jesus.” The “worthiness” is, of course, relative to our capacity, not absolute.
All pleasing.—The word here used is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, but is employed in classic and Hellenistic Greek to mean “a general disposition to please”—a constant preference of the will of others before our own. It is here used with tacit reference to God, since towards Him alone can it be a safe guide of action. Otherwise it must have the bad sense which in general usage was attached to it. St. Paul emphatically disowns and condemns the temper of “men-pleasing” (see Galatians 1:10; Ephesians 6:6; Colossians 3:22; 1 Thessalonians 2:4), as incompatible with being “the servant of Christ.” He could, indeed, “be all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22); he could bid each man “please his neighbour for his edification” (Romans 15:12). But the only “pleasing” to which the whole life can be conformed is (see 1 Thessalonians 4:1) the consideration “how we ought to walk and to please God.” Only in subordination to this can we safely act on the desire of “all pleasing” towards men.
Increasing in (or, by) the knowledge of God.—The context evidently shows that the path towards the knowledge of God here indicated is not the path of thoughtful speculation, or of meditative devotion, but the third path co-ordinate with these—the path of earnest practice, of which the watchword is, “Do and thou shalt know.”
(11) His glorious power.—Properly, the strength of His glory, His glory being His manifestation of Himself in love to man. (Comp. Ephesians 3:16, “According to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might by His spirit in the inner man.”) On this use of “the glory” of God, frequent in these Epistles, see Ephesians 1:6; Ephesians 1:12; Ephesians 1:14, and Notes there. The prayer, however, in the Ephesian Epistle looks to “knowledge of the love of Christ” as its object; the prayer here to power of endurance of trial and suffering.
Patience and longsuffering with joyfulness.—(1) “Patience” is here “endurance,” rather than what we usually call patience. It is spoken of by St. James (James 1:3) as the result of the bracing effect of trial, and is illustrated by the typical example of Job (James 5:11). Now a glance at the Book of Job will show that, while in respect of physical trial he is resignation itself (Job 1:21; Job 2:10), yet that under the spiritual trial, which is the great subject of the book, he is the reverse of what is commonly called patient. He endures and conquers, but it is not without vehement passion and spiritual struggles, occasionally verging on a repining and rebellion, of which he bitterly repents (Job 41:6). (2) To this “patience,” therefore, here as elsewhere (2 Timothy 3:10), St. Paul adds “longsuffering”—a word generally connected (as in 1 Corinthians 13:4) with the temper of gentleness and love, and coming much nearer to the description of our ordinary idea of a “patient” temper, which, in its calm sweetness and gentleness, hardly feels to the utmost such spiritual trials as vexed the righteous soul of Job. Of such longsuffering our Lord’s bearing of the insults of the Condemnation and the cruelties of the Passion, when “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,” is the perfect type. (3) Yet even then St. Paul is not content without “joyfulness,” in obedience to the command of our Master (Matthew 5:12), fulfilled in Himself on the cross (Hebrews 12:2). The ground of such joy, so often shown in Christian martyrdom, is given by St. Peter (1 Peter 4:13), “Rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” Of that joy St. Paul himself was a bright example in his present captivity. (See Philippians 1:18-19; Philippians 2:17-18.) The words therefore form a climax. “Patience” struggles and endures; “long-suffering” endures without a struggle; “joyfulness” endures and glories in suffering.
(12) Giving thanks unto the Father.—These words naturally follow the words “with joyfulness,” with which, indeed, they may be grammatically connected. But the “thankfulness” here is, as the context shows, the thankfulness of humility, sensible that from the Father’s love we have received all, and can but receive.
Which hath made us meet.—The same word is used in 2 Corinthians 3:6, “who hath made us able ministers of the new covenant,” and corresponds to the word “sufficient” in St. Paul’s previous question (2 Corinthians 2:16), “Who is sufficient for these things?” The reference is clearly to God’s foreknowledge and call (as in Romans 8:29-30), in virtue of which “we are more than conquerors,” and “cannot be separated from His love in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
To be partakers of the inheritance of the saints.—Literally, for the part (appointed to us) of the lot of the saints. (Comp. Ephesians 1:11, where, however, the sense is slightly different). The “lot” (like the Old Testament type of the share in the land of Canaan,” the lot of their inheritance”) is the place assigned to the saints primarily by the grace of God. It may have, as in the case of the type, to be fought for; but it is won not by our own arm, but by “God’s hand and His arm, and the light of His countenance, because He has a favour unto us” (Psalms 44:3). Hence, in accordance with St. Paul’s usual teaching (especially emphatic in this and the Ephesian Epistle), the whole stress is laid on God’s grace, giving us our lot, and “making us meet” to accept it.
In light.—Properly, in the light. See Ephesians 4:8-14—a passage dwelling on the idea of the kingdom of light, almost as strongly and exhaustively as St. John himself (1 John 1:5-7, et al.). “In the light” (opposed to “the power of darkness” of the next verse) is in the light of God’s countenance, revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.
(13) Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness.—“Delivered” is “rescued,” properly applied to dragging a person out of battle or the jaws of danger. “The power of darkness” (see Luke 22:53) is, of course, the power of evil, permitted (see Luke 4:6) to exist, but in itself a usurped tyranny (as Chrysostom expresses it), not a true “kingdom. Salvation is, first of all, rescue from the guilt and bondage of sin, to which man has given occasion by his own choice, but which, once admitted, he cannot himself break. It is here described in its first origination from the love of the Father. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.”
And hath translated us . . .—The word “translated” is a word properly applied to the transplanting of races, and the settlement of them in a new home. Salvation, begun by rescue, is completed by the settlement of the rescued captives in the new kingdom of Christ. The two acts, indeed, are distinct, but inseparable. Thus baptism is at once “for the remission of sins” and an “entrance into the kingdom of God.”
His dear Son.—The original is far more striking and beautiful. It is, “The Son of His love,” corresponding to “the beloved” of the parallel passage in the Ephesian Epistle (Colossians 1:6), but perhaps going beyond it. God is love; the Son of God is, therefore, the “Son of His love,” partaking of and manifesting this His essential attribute.
In whom we have . . .—This verse corresponds verbally with Ephesians 1:7, where see Note. From the love of the Father, the first cause of salvation, we pass to the efficient cause in the redemption and propitiation of the Son.
Colossians 1:15-17 pass from Christ as our Mediator to Christ as He is in Himself from all eternity, “the image of the invisible God,” and as He is from the beginning of time, the creator and sustainer of all things in heaven and earth. What was before implied is now explicitly asserted; what was before emphatic ally asserted is now taken for granted, and made the stepping-stone to yet higher and more mysterious truth.
(13, 14) We enter on this great passage, as is natural, and accordant with St. Paul’s universal practice, through that living and practical truth of our redemption in Christ Jesus, which in the earlier Epistles he had taught as the one thing needful (1 Corinthians 2:2).
The Doctrine of Christ.
(1) His SALVATION AND REDEMPTION of us all (Colossians 1:13-14).
(2) His NATURE AS THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD, the creator and sustainer of all things heavenly and earthly (Colossians 1:15-17).
(3) His HEADSHIP OF THE CHURCH (Colossians 1:18).
(4) His MEDIATION, reconciling all to God, first generally stated, then applied especially to the Colossians (Colossians 1:19-23).]
(13-23) In this we have the great characteristic section of this Epistle, distinguished from corresponding parts of the Epistle to the Ephesians by the explicit and emphatic stress laid upon the divine majesty of Christ. It corresponds very closely with the remarkable passage opening the Epistle to the Hebrews. In the Epistles of the preceding group, to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, chief and almost exclusive prominence is given to the universal mediation of Christ, as justifying and sanctifying all the souls of men. In these Epistles (this truth being accepted) we pass on to that which such universal mediation necessitates—the conception of Christ as the Head of all created being, and as the perfect manifestation of the Godhead. The former is the key-note of the Ephesian Epistle; the latter is dominant here, although the former remains as an undertone; as also in the great passage of the Epistle to the Philippians (Colossians 2:6-11), speaking of Him as “in the form of God,” and having “the Name which is above every name.” The especial reason for St. Paul’s emphatic assertion of the great truth here we see in the next chapter. But it is clear that it comes naturally in the order of revelation, leading up to the full doctrine of, “the Word” in St. John. As the spiritual meaning of the Resurrection, the great subject of the first preaching, had to be sought in the Atonement, so the inquiry into the possibility of an universal Atonement led back to the Incarnation, and to Christ as pre-existent from “the beginning” in God.
(15) The image of the invisible God.—This all important clause needs the most careful examination. We note accordingly (1) that the word “image” (like the word “form,” Philippians 2:6-7) is used in the New Testament for real and essential embodiment, as distinguished from mere likeness. Thus in Hebrews 10:1 we read, “The law, having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things;” we note also in Romans 1:23 the distinction between the mere outward “likeness” and the “image” which it represented; we find in 1 Corinthians 15:49 that the “image of the earthy” and “the image of the heavenly” Adam denote actual identity of nature with both; and in 2 Corinthians 3:18 the actual work of the Spirit in the heart is described as “changing us from glory to glory” into “the image” of the glorified Christ. (2) Next we observe that although, speaking popularly, St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:7 calls man “the image and glory of God,” yet the allusion is to Genesis 1:26; Genesis 1:28, where man is said, with stricter accuracy, to be made “after the image of God” (as in Ephesians 4:24, “created after God”), and this more accurate expression is used in Colossians 3:10 of this Epistle, “renewed after the image of Him that created him.” Who then, or what, is the “image of God,” after which man is created? St. Paul here emphatically (as in 2 Corinthians 4:4 parenthetically) answers “Christ,” as the Son of God, “first-born before all creation.” The same truth is conveyed in a different form, clearer (if possible) even than this, in Hebrews 1:3, where “the Son” is said to be not only “the brightness of the glory of the Father,” but “the express image of His Person.” For the word “express image” is character in the original, used here (as when we speak of the alphabetical “characters”) to signify the visible drawn image, and the word “Person” is substance or essence. (3) It is not to be forgotten that at this time in the Platonising Judaism of Philo, “the Word” was called the eternal “image of God.” (See passages quoted in Dr. Light-foot’s note on this passage.) This expression was not peculiar to him; it was but a working out of that personification of the “wisdom of God,” of which we have a magnificent example in Proverbs 8:22-30, and of which we trace the effect in the Alexandrine Book of “Wisdom” (Wis. 7:25-26). “Wisdom is the breath of the power of God, and a pure stream from the glory of the Most High—the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of His goodness.” It seems to have represented in the Jewish schools the idea complementary to the ordinary idea of the Messiah in the Jewish world. Just as St. John took up the vague idea of “the Word,” and gave it a clear divine personality in Christ, so St. Paul seems to act here in relation to the other phrase, used as a description of the Word. In Christ he fixes in solid reality the floating vision of the “image of God.” (4) There is an emphasis on the words “of the invisible God.” Now, since the whole context shows that the reference is to the eternal pre-existence of Christ, ancient interpreters (of whom Chrysostom may be taken as the type) argued that the image of the invisible must be also invisible. But this seems opposed to the whole idea of the word “image,” and to its use in the New Testament and elsewhere. The true key to this passage is in our Lord’s own words in John 1:8, “No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son” (here is the remarkable reading, “the only begotten God”), “who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath revealed Him.” In anticipation of the future revelation of Godhead, Christ, even as pre-existent, is called “The image of the invisible God.”
The firstborn of every creature (of all creation).—(1) As to the sense of this clause. The grammatical construction here will bear either the rendering of our version, or the rendering “begotten before all creation,” whence comes the “begotten before all worlds “of the Nicene creed. But the whole context shows that the latter is unquestionably the true rendering. For, as has been remarked from ancient times, He is said to be “begotten” and not “created;” next, he is emphatically spoken of below as He “by whom all things were created,” who is “before all things,” and in whom all things consist.” (2) As to the order of idea. In Himself He is “the image of God” from all eternity. From this essential conception, by a natural contrast, the thought immediately passes on to distinction from, and priority to, all created being. Exactly in this same order of idea, we have in Hebrews 1:2-3, “By whom also He made the worlds . . . upholding all things by the word of His power;” and in John 1:3, “All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made which was made. Here St. Paul indicates this idea in the words “firstborn before all creation,” and works it out in the verses following. (3) As to the name “firstborn” itself. It is used of the Messiah as an almost technical name (derived from Psalms 2:7; Psalms 89:28), as is shown in Hebrews 1:6, “when He bringeth the first begotten into the world.” In tracing the Messianic line of promise we notice that; while the Messiah is always true man, “the seed of Abraham,” “the son of David,” yet on him are accumulated attributes too high for any created being (as in Isaiah 9:6). He is declared to be an “Emmanuel” God with us; and His kingdom a visible manifestation of God. Hence the idea contained in the word “firstborn” is not only sovereignty “above all the kings of the earth” (Psalms 89:28; comp. Daniel 8:13-14), but also likeness to God and priority to all created being. (4) As to the union of the two clauses. In the first we have the declaration of His eternal unity with God—all that was completely embodied in the declaration of the “Word who is God,” up to which all the higher Jewish speculations had led; in the second we trace the distinctness of His Person, as the “begotten of the Father,” the true Messiah of Jewish hopes, and the subordination of the co-eternal Son to the Father. The union of the two marks the assertion of Christian mystery, as against rationalising systems, of the type of Arianism on one side, of Sabellianism on the other.
(16) For by him . . . all things were created by (through) him, and for (to) him.—Carrying out the idea of the preceding clause with accumulated emphasis, St. Paul speaks of all creation as having taken place “by Him,” “through Him,” and “for Him.” Now we note that in Romans 11:36, St. Paul, in a burst of adoration, declares of the Father that “from Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things;” and in Hebrews 2:10 the Father is spoken of as One “by whom are all things, and for whom are all things” (the word “for whom” being different from the word so rendered here, but virtually equivalent to it). Hence we observe that the Apostle here takes up a phrase belonging only to Godhead and usually applied to the Father, and distinctly applies it to Christ, but with the significant change of “from whom” into “in whom.” The usual language of holy Scripture as to the Father is “from whom,” and as to the Son “through whom,” are all things. Thus we have in Hebrews 1:2, “through whom He made the world;” and in John 1:3-10, “All things were made”—“the world was made”—“through Him.” Here, however, St. Paul twice adds “in whom,” just as he had used “in whom” of God in his sermon at Athens (Acts 17:28), probably conveying the idea, foreshadowed in the Old Testament description of the divine “Wisdom,” that in His divine mind lay the germ of the creative design and work. and indirectly condemning by anticipation the fancy of incipient Gnosticism, that He was but an inferior emanation or agent of the Supreme God.
In heaven and . . . earth . . .—Here again there is a reiteration of earnest emphasis. “All things in heaven and earth” is the ancient phrase for all creation. Then, lest this phrase should be restricted to the sublunary sphere, he adds, “visible and invisible.” Lastly, in accordance with the general tone of these Epistles, and with special reference to the worship of angels introduced into Colossæ, he dwells, like the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, on the superiority of our Lord to all angelic natures, whether they be “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers.” (Comp. Ephesians 1:21; Philippians 2:9-10.)
Thrones, or dominions . . .—Compare the enumeration in Ephesians 1:21. The word peculiar to this passage is “thrones,” which in all the various speculations as to the hierarchy of heaven, naturally represents the first place of dignity and nearness to the Throne of God. (Comp. Revelation 4:4, “Round about the throne four-and-twenty thrones.”) But it seems difficult, if not impossible, to attach distinctive meanings to those titles, and trace out their order. If St. Paul alludes at all to the Rabbinical hierarchies, he (probably with deliberate intention) takes their titles without attending to their fanciful orders and meanings. Whatever they mean, if they mean anything, all are infinitely below the glory of Christ. (See Note on Ephesians 1:21.)
(17) He is before all things.—The words “He is” are both emphatic. He, and He only, is; all else is created. It is impossible not to refer to the “I am” of Eternal existence, as claimed by our Lord for Himself. “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58; comp. also John 1:15). Hence the word “before” should be taken, not of supreme dignity, but of pre-existence.
By him all things consist.—That is, hold together in unity, obeying the primæval law of their being. In this clause is attributed to our Lord, not only the creative act, but also the constant sustaining power, “in which all lives and moves and has its being,” and which, even less than the creative agency, can be supposed to be a derivative and finite power, such as that of the Demiurgus of Gnostic speculation.
(18) He is the head.—“He” is again emphatic. “He who is the image of God, He also is the Head.” (On the title itself, see Ephesians 1:22.)
The beginning.—Chrysostom reads here a kindred word, the first-fruits. The reading is no doubt a gloss, but an instructive one. It shows that the reference is to Christ, as being in His humanity “the first principle” of the new life to us—the “first-fruits” from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Corinthians 15:23), and “the bringer of life and immortality to light” (2 Timothy 1:10).
The firstborn from the dead.—The same title is given to Him in Revelation 1:5. In his sermon at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:33), St. Paul quotes the passage, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee,” as fulfilled in that “He raised up Jesus again.” (Comp. Hebrews 5:5.) In Romans 1:3, he speaks of Christ as “declared” (or, defined) “to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.” The Resurrection is (so to speak) His second birth, the beginning of that exaltation, which is contrasted with His first birth on earth in great humility, and of His entrance on the glory of His mediatorial kingdom. (See Ephesians 1:20-23, where the starting-point of all His exaltation is again placed in the Resurrection.)
That in all things he might . . .—Literally, That in all things He might become pre-eminent. The words “He might become,” are opposed to the “He is” above. They refer to the exaltation of His humanity, so gloriously described in Philippians 2:9-11. Thus absolutely in His divine nature, relatively to the mediatorial kingdom in His humanity, He is “the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last” (Revelation 1:8; Revelation 1:11; Revelation 1:17-18).
(18-20) In these verses St. Paul returns from dwelling on the eternal nature of the Son of God to describe Him in His mediatorial office as Son of Man, becoming the “Head” of all humanity, as called into “His Body, the Church.” In this he touches on a doctrine more fully developed in the Epistle to the Ephesians. (See Ephesians 1:10; Ephesians 1:20; Ephesians 1:22; Ephesians 2:19; Ephesians 2:21; Ephesians 4:15-16.) But still, as has been already noted, there is in this Epistle more stress on the supreme dignity of the Head, as in the other more on the unity, and blessing, and glory of the Body. It should be observed that in this, His mediatorial office, there is throughout a mysterious analogy to His eternal sonship. In both He is “the Head,” first, of universal creation, next, of the new creation in His Church; He is “the beginning,” in the one case in eternity, in the other in time; He is “the firstborn,” now in Eternal Sonship, now in the Resurrection making Him the new life of mankind.
(19) For it pleased the Father.—(1) The construction is doubtful. There is nothing corresponding to “the Father” in the original. Our rendering involves the supply of the nominative God, i.e., “the Father,” or Christ to the verb, so that the sentence may run, the Father or Christ determined of His good pleasure that, &c. The supply of the nominative “Christ” is easier grammatically; but it accords ill with the invariable reference of all things, both by our Lord Himself and His Apostles, ultimately to the good pleasure of the Father. Moreover, the verb is so constantly used of God that the supply of the nominative “God,” though unexampled, is far from inadmissible. The simplest grammatical construction would, indeed, be to take “the fulness” as the nominative, and render for in Him all the fulness (of God) was pleased to dwell. But the personification of “the fulness,” common in Gnostic speculation, is hardly after the manner of St. Paul. Perhaps, on the whole, the rendering of our version (which is usually adopted) is to be preferred; especially as it suits better with the following verse. (2) The sense is, however, quite clear, and is enforced by Colossians 2:9, “In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” On the word “fulness” (pleroma), see Note on Ephesians 1:23. The “fulness of the Godhead” is the essential nature, comprising all the attributes, of Godhead. The indwelling of such Deity in the humanity of Christ is the ground of all His exaltation as the “Head,” “the beginning,” the “firstborn from the dead,” and the triumphant King, on which St. Paul had already dwelt. By it alone can He be the true Mediator between God and man.
(20) Having made peace through the blood of his cross.—On this verse, where St. Paul returns to the subject of the Atonement, with which he began, comp. Ephesians 2:13-18, and Notes there. In the Ephesian Epistle the treatment of the subject is fuller, and in one point more comprehensive, viz., in bringing out emphatically the unity of all, Jews and Gentiles alike, with one another, as well as their unity with Christ. But, on the other hand, this passage involves deeper and more mysterious teaching in this—that it includes in the reconciliation by the blood of Christ, not merely all humanity, but “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” This is, indeed, only a fuller exposition of the truth that “God was in Christ reconciling the world (the kosmos) to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19); and that “the whole creation waiteth,” “in constant expectation,” “for the manifestation of the sons of God,” and “shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21). But it is couched in more distinct and striking terms, opening to us a glimpse of the infinite scope, not merely of our Lord’s Mediatorship, but of His Atonement, which, while it almost bewilders, yet satisfies the thoughtful understanding, and more than satisfies an adoring faith. As there seems to be a physical unity in the universe, if we may believe the guesses of science, so, says Holy Scripture, there is a moral and spiritual unity also in Jesus Christ.
Colossians 1:21-23 apply this truth of the Mediatorial work of the Lord Jesus Christ to the especial case of the Colossians. The subject here touched is more fully worked out in Ephesians 2:1-2; Ephesians 2:11-18; the alienation is there described as not only from God, but from His covenanted people; the reconciliation is with God and man in one great unity.
(21) Alienated.—Not naturally aliens, but estranged. (See Note on Ephesians 2:12.)
By wicked works.—Properly, in your wicked works. The enmity of heart is not properly caused by wicked works, but shown in them, and probably intensified by reflex action through them.
(22) In the body of his flesh.—There seems to be some emphasis on the word “flesh:” just as in the parallel of Ephesians 2:16, the expression is “in one body,” with a characteristic emphasis on the word “one,” suiting the genius of the passage. The meaning is, of course, His natural body, as distinguished from His mystic Body, spoken of above (Colossians 1:18). But this is no sufficient reason for the use of this phrase, for there could be no confusion between them in this passage. Hence, without ascribing to the word “flesh” a distinctly polemical intention, we may not unnaturally suppose that there was present to St. Paul’s mind the thought of the Gnosticism, which depreciated the body as evil, and which must have always inclined to the idea that “Jesus Christ had not come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2-3); and that the presence of this thought induced some special emphasis in his language.
Holy and unblameable and unreproveable.—See Note on Ephesians 1:4. The word “to present” is used both in a sacrificial sense (as in Romans 12:1) and in the sense of introduction and presentation (as of a bride, see Ephesians 5:27). The words, “holy and unblameable,” i.e., “without blemish,” suit the former sense. But “unreproveable” is incongruous with it, and the parallel passage (Ephesians 2:18) speaks of “access” or introduction to the Father.
(23) If.—The word, as in Ephesians 3:2; Ephesians 4:21 (where see Notes), conveys a supposition hardly hypothetical—“If, as I presume;” “If, as I trust.” St. Paul cannot refrain from needful warning, but he refuses to anticipate failure.
Grounded.—Built on the foundation. Comp. Ephesians 2:20, “built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone.”
Settled.—The result of being so grounded. The word is used in the same sense, but without metaphorical association, in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “stedfast, unmoveable,” as here “settled and not being moved.”
The hope.—See Note on Colossians 1:5. Here, as there, great emphasis is laid on “hope.” But here there may possibly be reference to some ideas (like those spoken of in 2 Timothy 2:18) that “the resurrection was past already,” and that the hope of a true resurrection and a real heaven was either a delusion or a metaphor.
Every creature which is under heaven.—Comp. our Lord’s command, “Preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). In idea and capacity the gospel is literally universal; although in actual reality such universality can only be claimed by a natural hyperbole.
The Mission of St. Paul.
As APOSTLE OF THE GENTILES, a minister of the newly revealed mystery of their salvation, testifying to all alike by suffering and by preaching, in order “to present all perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:24-29).]
(24) Who now rejoice.—In the true reading of the original there is no relative pronoun. The sentence starts with emphatic abruptness, “Now (at this moment) I rejoice” (just as in 2 Corinthians 7:9). In all the three Epistles of the Captivity this same rejoicing is declared in himself and urged on his brethren. In Ephesians 3:13, “I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory;” in Philippians 2:11, “Yea, if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all. For the same cause do ye also joy, and rejoice with me.” There, as here, the rejoicing is in suffering, not in itself, not solely because it is borne with and for Christ, but also because it is for the sake of the Church. Here, however, this idea is expressed with far greater emphasis.
Fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ.—The sense of this passage is at first sight startling, but it could not have been thought difficult or doubtful, had not false inferences from it tempted men to shrink from the obvious meaning. Now, (1) the “afflictions of Christ” is a phrase not used elsewhere; for “affliction” (properly, hard and galling pressure) is the ordinary burden of life, and is generally spoken of only as coming on His servants. But, like the common phrase “the sufferings of Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5; Philippians 3:10; 1 Peter 4:15; 1 Peter 5:1), it must moan the afflictions which He endured. It is true, as has been thoughtfully suggested (see Chrysostom and others on the passage) that we are to count as His the afflictions of His Church; but still, even if we are to include these indirect afflictions, we cannot possibly exclude the direct. Next, (2) St. Paul expressly says (in the full force of the original) that “he fills up instead” of his Master, what is still left unfinished of his Master’s afflictions. (See the passages quoted by Dr. Lightfoot in his note on this verse.) He declares, i.e., that, succeeding to the suffering of Christ, he carries it out for the sake of His body the Church. This is, indeed, nothing but a clearer and more striking expression of the truth conveyed in 2 Corinthians 1:5, “The sufferings of Christ overflow to us,” so that we bear our part, in addition to the full measure which He bore; and even in the commoner expression, to be “partaker of Christ’s sufferings” (Philippians 3:10; 1 Peter 4:13), or “to drink of His cup and be baptised with His baptism” (Matthew 20:22-23). But, (3) looking to the meaning and use of the word “afflictions,” we note that “the afflictions of Christ” must be His sufferings on earth considered simply as a part—though immeasurably the chief part—of the burden of humanity in a sinful world, They represent, not the Cross of Atonement, on which He alone could suffer—and in which any reader of St. Paul must find it absurd to suppose that he would claim the slightest share—but the Cross of struggle against sin even to death, which He expressly bade us “take up if we would follow Him.” This He has still left “behind;” this in His strength every one of His servants bears, partly for himself, partly also for others. In the former light St. Paul says, “The world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14); in the latter he claims it as his highest privilege “to fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ for His Body which is the Church.”
In my flesh for his body’s sake.—There is obviously an antithesis here. St. Paul suffers in his natural body for the mystical Body of Christ.
(24-29) Here (as in Ephesians 3:0, in the same connection) St. Paul dwells on his own mission to set forth the universal gospel to the Gentiles. In the Ephesian Epistle this declaration is made a direct introduction to practical exhortation (comp. Colossians 4:5, Colossians 4:6); here it leads up to the earnest remonstrance against speculative errors in Colossians 2:0, which precedes a similar practical exhortation. In both cases he dwells on the committal to him of a special dispensation; in both he rejoices in suffering as a means of spiritual influence; in both cases he declares the one object to be the presentation of each man perfect before Christ.
(25) Whereof I am made (or, became) a minister.—Above (in Colossians 1:23) St. Paul describes himself as a “minister of the gospel,” here as a “minister (or, servant) of the Church.” Elsewhere he is always the “minister of God” and “of Christ”; here of the Church, as the Body of Christ, and so indissolubly united with Christ.
The dispensation of God.—See Ephesians 3:2-9, and Notes there. The reference is to his peculiar “Apostleship of the Gentiles.”
To fulfil.—The marginal reading and reference to Romans 15:19 give the explanation of the word, “fully to preach the Word of God”—to be a messenger of the perfect revelation, which had now unfolded what was previously a hidden “mystery.”
(26) The mystery.—On the Scriptural sense of the word “mystery,” and its relation to the modern use of the word, see Note on Ephesians 1:9. In this passage, perhaps, most of all, it is defined with perfect clearness, as “a secret long hidden, and now revealed.”
(27) To whom God would—i.e., God willed. The expression is emphatic. It was of God’s own pleasure, inscrutable to man. So in Ephesians 1:9, we read “the mystery of His will.” Note also, in Ephesians 1:4-6, the repeated reference to the predestination of God in His love.
The riches of the glory.—See Ephesians 1:18; Ephesians 3:16; and Notes there.
Which is Christ in you.—This mystery specially committed to St. Paul to declare is. in Ephesians 3:6, defined thus, “That the Gentiles should be (or, are) fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel”; and the nature of this promise is explained below, “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” Here the mystery itself is boldly defined as “Christ in you;” just as in 1 Timothy 3:16, according to one interpretation of that difficult passage, “the mystery of godliness” is Christ Himself, “who was manifest,” &c. Here we have again a significant illustration of the difference between the characteristic ideas of the two Epistles. In the Ephesian Epistle the unity of all in God’s covenant is first put forth, and then explained as dependent on the indwelling of Christ in the heart. Here the “Christ in you” is all in all: the unity of all men in Him is an inference, but one which the readers of the Epistle are left to draw for themselves. On the great idea itself, in the purely individual relation, see Philippians 1:21, and also Galatians 2:20; in the more general form, see Romans 8:10; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 4:19.
The hope of (the) glory.—So in 1 Timothy 1:1, “The Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope.” “The glory” is the glorified state of perfection in heaven, wrapt in the communion with God, and so “changed from glory to glory.” Again we note (as in Colossians 1:5; Colossians 1:23) the special emphasis laid on the hope of heaven. Christ is “our hope,” as He is “our life,” i.e., the ground of our sure and certain hope of the future, as of our spiritual life in the present.
(28) Warning every man, and teaching.—In “warning” is implied the idea of reproof of folly or sin. (See 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:5.) “Teaching” is simply instruction—including, of course, practical exhortation—of those already warned.
Perfect.—See Ephesians 4:13; Philippians 3:15, and Notes there. Here, however, as in 1 Corinthians 2:6-7, the reference may be to the sense of “perfect “as “initiated in mystery.” St. Paul, in opposition to the exclusive claim of “perfection” by the speculators in mystic knowledge (“falsely so called”) would present “every man,” learned or ignorant, “perfect before God.” In this universality of privilege lies the glorious distinction between the gospel and all schools of philosophy, whether they reject or assume its name.
(29) Whereunto I also labour.—In this verse St. Paul passes from the plural to the singular, evidently in preparation for the strong personal remonstrance of Colossians 2:1-7.
His working . . .—See Ephesians 1:12, and Note there. Perhaps, as in Galatians 2:8 (“He that wrought effectually in Peter to the Apostleship of the Circumcision, the same was mighty in me towards the Gentiles”), there is special allusion to the grace given to him for his Apostleship of the Gentiles.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Colossians 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26