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by Charles John Ellicott
THE EPISTLES TO THE EPHESIANS, PHILIPPIANS, AND COLOSSIANS.
THE RIGHT REV. ALFRED BARRY, D.D.
THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS.
I. The Time, Place, and Occasion of Writing.—There are in this Epistle indications of the time and place of writing similar to those already noticed in the Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians. It is written in prison: for St. Paul bids the Colossians “remember his bonds” (Colossians 4:18), and designates Aristarchus as his “fellow-prisoner” (Colossians 4:10). Like the Epistle to the Ephesians, it is sent by Tychicus, with precisely the same official commendation of him as in that Epistle (Colossians 4:7-8; comp. Ephesians 6:21-22); but with him is joined Onesimus, the Colossian slave, the bearer of the Epistle to Philemon. The persons named in the concluding salutations (Colossians 4:7-14)—Aristarchus, Marcus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, and “Jesus, called Justus”—are all, except the last, named in the corresponding part of the Epistle to Philemon (Philemon 1:23-24); two of them, Aristarchus and St. Luke, are known to have accompanied the Apostle on his voyage, as a captive, to Rome (Acts 27:2): and another, Tychicus, to have been his companion on the journey to Jerusalem, which preceded the beginning of that captivity at Cæsarea (Acts 20:4). A direction is given to forward this Epistle to Laodicea, and to obtain and read a letter from Laodicea (Colossians 4:16), which (as will be seen by the Note on the passage) is, in all probability, our Epistle to the Ephesians—an Epistle (see the Introduction to it) addressed, indeed, primarily to Ephesus, but apparently also an Encyclical Letter to the sister Churches of Asia. All these indications point to one conclusion—not only that the Epistle is one of the Epistles of the Roman captivity (about A.D. 61-63), but that it is a twin Epistle with the Epistle to the Ephesians, sent at the same time and by the same hand, and designed to be interchanged with it in the Churches of Colossæ and Laodicea. These indications are confirmed most decisively by the substance of the Epistle itself, which (as will be seen below) presents, on the one hand, the most striking similarities to the Epistle to the Ephesians, and, on the other, differences almost equally striking and characteristic—thus contradicting all theories of derivation of one from the other, and supporting very strongly the idea of independent contemporaneousness and coincidence of thought.
The occasion of writing seems evidently to have been a visit to the Apostle from Epaphras, the first preacher of the gospel at Colossæ, and the profound anxiety caused both to him and to St. Paul (Colossians 2:1; Colossians 4:12-13) by the news which he brought of the rise among the Colossians (and probably the Christians of Laodicea and Hierapolis also) of a peculiar form of error, half Jewish, half Gnostic, which threatened to beguile them from the simplicity of the gospel into certain curious mazes of speculation as to the Godhead and the outgrowth of various emanations from it: to create a separation between those who believed themselves perfect in this higher knowledge and the mass of their brethren: and, above all, to obscure or obliterate the sole divine mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ. To warn them against these forms of error—the last development of the Judaism which had been so formidable an enemy in time past, and the first anticipation of an intellectual and spiritual bewilderment which was to be still more formidable in the future—St. Paul writes this Letter. The Colossian Church was indeed to receive a copy from Laodicea of our Epistle to the Ephesians; but in an Encyclical Letter this peculiar form of heresy could not well be touched upon. Epaphras was for the present to continue at Rome, and (see Philemon 1:24) to share St. Paul’s imprisonment. Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, then with St. Paul, was perhaps coming to Colossæ (Colossians 4:10), but not yet. Accordingly, by Tychicus, the bearer of the Encyclical Letter, and Onesimus, a fugitive Colossian slave, whom the Apostle was about to send back to Philemon, his master, this Letter is despatched. Partly it repeats and enforces the teaching of the other Epistle, but regards these common truths from a different point of view, designed tacitly to correct the errors rife at Colossæ; partly it deals directly with those errors themselves, imploring the Colossians to break through the delusions of their new “philosophy and vain deceit,” and to return to the simplicity of the gospel, in which they had all been one in the one mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
II. The Church to which it is addressed.—The Church of Colossæ, unlike the Churches of Ephesus and Philippi, finds no record in the Acts of the Apostles; for, although this city is not very far from Ephesus, we gather that it was not one of the churches founded or previously visited by St. Paul personally (Colossians 2:1; comp. Colossians 1:4). But it appears, from what is apparently the true reading of Colossians 1:7, that Epaphras, named as its first evangelist, and still, to some extent, in charge of it and the neighbouring Churches of Laodicea and Hierapolis (Colossians 4:12-13), was not only a fellow-servant, but a representative of St. Paul in his mission to Colossæ. We can, therefore, hardly be wrong in referring the conversion of the Colossians to the time of St. Paul’s three years’ stay at Ephesus, during which we are expressly told that “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10), and supposing that indirectly through Epaphras the Christianity of the Colossians was due to the influence of that great Apostolic preaching under which “the word of God grew mightily and prevailed.” We find also that St. Paul had intimate personal acquaintance, and what he calls emphatically “partnership,” with Philemon (see Philemon 1:17), apparently a leading member of the Church at Colossæ. It is not unlikely that through him also the Apostle had been able to influence the foundation or growth of that Church. These circumstances explain the style and tone of this Letter, which seems to stand midway between the personal familiarity and unhesitating authority of such Epistles as the Epistles to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians, addressed to churches founded directly by St. Paul, and the courteous reserve of the Epistle to the Romans, addressed to a Church over which he could claim none of the authority of a founder. This is, perhaps, especially notable in Colossians 2, where St. Paul prefaces his definite and authoritative denunciation of the peculiar errors besetting the Colossian Church with the half-apologetic introduction: “I would that ye know what great conflict I have for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh.”
III. The Genuineness of the Epistle.—External Evidence.—Speaking generally, the condition of the external evidence is much the same with this as with the other two Epistles. It is included unhesitatingly in all canons, from the Muratorian Canon (A.D. 170?) downwards, and in all versions, beginning with the Peschito and the Old Latin in the second century. Quotations or references to it have not, however, been traced in any of the Apostolic fathers. The first distinct allusion to it is in Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-170?), who says (Apol. i. 46, ii. 6; Dial. c. Tryph. c. 100):—“We were taught that Christ is the first-born of God;” “We have acknowledged Him as the first-born of God, and before all creatures;” “Through Him God set all things in order.” (Comp. .) The next is Theophilus of Antioch, who died about A.D. 180:—“God begat the Word, the first-born before all creation.” After this, in Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, direct quotation begins, and continues uninterruptedly in all Christian writings. (See Westcott, Canon of the New Testament.) The external evidence is therefore strong. Never until these later days of arbitrary criticism has the genuineness of the Epistle been questioned.
Internal Evidence.—This Epistle, far more than the Epistle to the Philippians, perhaps a little less than the Epistle to the Ephesians, bears traces of what I have ventured to call St. Paul’s “third manner.” To the correspondence of the change, both in style and substance, traceable in these Epistles, to the alteration of St. Paul’s circumstances, and the natural development of the gospel and of the Church, I have already referred in the General Introduction to the Epistles of the Captivity, and given reasons for maintaining that this change, which has been often made an argument against the genuineness of these Epistles, presents to us phenomena inexplicable on any supposition of imitation or forgery, but perfectly intelligible if we accept the Apostolic authorship.
Some critics, however—of whom Dr. Holtzmann (in his Kritik der Epheser- und Kolosser- briefe) may be taken as the chief representative—insist on tracing extensive interpolations (almost amounting to a virtual reconstruction) in what they believe themselves able to discover as the originals both of this Epistle and the Epistle to the Ephesians. Except so far as these hypotheses depend on the supposed traces of a later Gnosticism in both Epistles, but especially in this (on which see Excursus at the close of this Epistle), they seem to resolve themselves into the idea that every passage bearing strong similarity to the teaching of St. Peter and St. John must have been altered or interpolated with a view to accommodation. Without any substantial historical evidence, ignoring both the probabilities of the case and the indirect evidence of Holy Scripture, and disregarding the utter absence of any support whatever in the witness of Christian antiquity, they assume an absolute antagonism between St. Paul and the Apostles of the Circumcision, and pronounce every indication of an underlying unity, and a true development of common doctrine, which contradicts this assumption, to be a mark of interpolation or falsification by a later hand. With the rejection of this arbitrary assumption, the greater part of the ingeniously-constructed fabric of destructive criticism falls to the ground.
But, indeed, it appears difficult to conceive how any one attentively studying either of these Epistles, without any preconceived hypothesis, can fail to recognise the internal consistency and unity—all the more striking because indicating a free method, as distinct from a well-squared artificial system—which runs through the whole, and makes the theory of interpolation even more improbable than the theory of imitation or forgery. Nothing, for example, is more notable in this Epistle than the substantial unity, under marked difference of form, which connects the positive statement of doctrine in the first chapter () with the polemical re-statement in the second chapter. In the former we trace anticipation of the latter, and (so to speak) preparation for the more explicit development of the attack on doctrinal error; in the latter, the very repetitions, with variations, of passages in the first chapter are indicative of a free treatment of the truths previously dealt with by the same hand, and are utterly unlike the tame reproductions or artificial modifications of a mere copyist. The remarkable indications, again, of the co-existence of similarity and distinctness between this Epistle and the Epistle to the Ephesians (noticed in the Introduction to that Epistle), as they preclude the theory of dependence or imitation in either, so are equally fatal to the idea of an artificial interpolation and reconstruction by later hands. They indicate at every point a free, almost unconscious, coincidence, omitting or preserving the parallelisms of idea and expression by a kind of natural selection. They mark a likeness of living organic growths, not of artificial and heterogeneous fabrics. Nor should we omit to notice the sustained power of these Epistles, differing as to the peculiar style of each, but equally conspicuous in both. The Epistle to the Ephesians has about it a certain calm and almost mystic eloquence, a beauty of meditative completeness of idea, unbroken by necessities of special teaching or special warning, which well suits a general Apostolic message to Christians as Christians, in which we seen almost to hear the utterance of an inspired mind, simply contemplating the divine truth in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and speaking out, so far as they can be spoken, the thoughts which it stirs within—conscious of God and itself, only half conscious of those to whom the utterance is addressed. In the Epistle to the Colossians, on the other hand, we find a far greater abruptness, force, and earnestness. The free course of the Apostolic thought, which occasionally, perhaps, rises to an even greater height, is, on the whole, checked and modified by the constant remembrance of pressing needs and pressing dangers—accordingly developing some elements and leaving others comparatively undeveloped: and so, while perhaps increasing intensity, certainly interfering to some extent with the majestic symmetry of the universal revelation. Each Epistle has its marked characteristics; and these, unquestionably, so run through the whole as to destroy even any show of plausibility in the theory of interpolation.
The supposed anachronisms in the references to what afterwards became peculiarities of the Gnostic system will be treated of in the Excursus (at the close of the Epistle) on the Relation of the Epistle to Gnosticism. Here it will be sufficient to say that, on more attentive examination, not only do the supposed objections to the genuineness of the Epistle disappear, but the phenomena of the “philosophy and vain deceit” touched upon in this Epistle, when compared with the opinions either of the past or of the future, accord so remarkably with the characteristics of the period to which the Epistle claims to belong, as to add a fresh confirmation of the conclusions already derived from a consideration of the external evidence, and by the study of the coherence and vigour of the Epistle itself.
In this case, therefore, as in the others, we may unhesitatingly dismiss the questions which have been ingeniously raised, and with undisturbed confidence draw from the Epistle the rich treasures of Apostolic teaching.
IV. The main Substance of the Epistle.—In considering the substance of the Epistle, we must distinguish between the large amount of matter common to it with the Epistle to the Ephesians and the portion which is peculiar to this Epistle alone.
In regard of the common matter, it may be said generally that it is found treated with a greater width of scope and completeness of handling in the Epistle to the Ephesians. It is best studied there in the first instance (see, accordingly, the Introduction and Analysis of that Epistle), and then illustrated by comparison and contrast with the corresponding passages in this Epistle. It will be seen (as is explained in the Notes on various passages) that this illustration is at every point full of suggestiveness and variety. Literal identities are exceedingly rare; in almost every set of parallel passages the treatment in the two Epistles presents some points of characteristic variety, either in expression or in meaning. Speaking generally, this variety depends on two causes. The first turns on the specialty of the Epistle, addressed to a single Church, thoroughly, though indirectly, known to St. Paul, and the generality of the other, approaching nearly to the character of a treatise rather than a letter. The second and the more important cause of this variety is the subtle adaptation even of details to the characteristic doctrines which stand out in the two Epistles respectively.
This last consideration leads on naturally to the examination of the portions of the Epistle to which there is nothing to correspond in the Ephesian Epistle.
(a) We have the passages in the first and last chapters which refer to the foundation of the Colossian Church by Epaphras, the declaration to them of the “truth of the gospel,” and the practical fruitfulness of that teaching (); next, to the deep anxiety felt by Epaphras and St. Paul himself for their steadfastness in the simple truths of the gospel, against the speculations of a wild philosophy and the allurements of a mystic perfection in practice (Colossians 1:23-24; Colossians 2:1-4; Colossians 2:8-10; Colossians 2:16-23; Colossians 4:12-13); lastly, the particularity and strong personality of the salutations, directions, and blessing at the close of this Epistle (Colossians 4:7-18), singularly contrasting with the brief generality of the other (Ephesians 6:21-24). All these correspond to the former of the causes above named. They mark the difference between a special and an Encyclical Epistle.
(b) Of infinitely greater moment is the special prominence which is given in this Epistle to the doctrine of the sole Headship of Christ. The references to the Church as His body, though not unfrequent, are brief, secondary, unemphatic; and thus stand in marked contrast with the vivid and magnificent descriptions in the Ephesian Epistle of the predestination and election of the whole body of the Church in the eternal counsels “of the heavenly places” (): of the union of Jew and Gentile in the divine “commonwealth,” all divisions being broken down which separated each from the other and both from God (Colossians 2:11-18): of the great Temple, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief corner-stone” (Colossians 2:19-23): of the “one body” and “the one Spirit,” the “one Lord, the one God and Father of all” (Colossians 4:4-10). It is especially notable that to the last-named passage, which is the climax of the doctrinal teaching of the Ephesian Epistle, there corresponds in this the equally celebrated but wholly different passage (Colossians 3:1-4), which addresses the Colossians as “risen with Christ,” having their “life hid with Him in God,” looking for the time “when He who is their life shall appear, and they with Him in glory.” The reason of the distinction is made clear at once by the indications of the presence at Colossæ of a tendency to vain speculations, to obsolete Jewish forms, and to half idolatrous superstitions, all of which alike prevented them from “holding the Head,” from “being dead with Christ” to the rudiments of the world, from being “risen with Him” to a communion with heaven (Colossians 2:8-23). Accordingly, the sole Headship of Christ is dwelt upon—first positively, (Colossians 1:18-20), next polemically, in warning against error (Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:16; Colossians 2:18). Both passages are peculiar to this Epistle, as compared with the Epistle to the Ephesians. They deal with a subject on which the needs of Colossæ and its sister Churches forced St. Paul to lay very special emphasis.
(c) But this emphasis does but bring out with greater force what may be found elsewhere. The great characteristic feature of this Epistle is the declaration of the nature of Christ in Himself as the “image of the invisible God;” “firstborn before all creation;” “by whom,” “for whom,” “in whom,” “all beings were created in heaven and earth” and “all things consist;” “in whom dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (; Colossians 1:19; Colossians 2:9). In this the Epistle may be compared with the Epistle to the Philippians (Colossians 2:6-7). But the simple declaration there made of Christ as “being in the form of God” is here worked out into a magnificent elaboration, ascribing to Him the “fulness of Godhead” and the essential divine attributes of universal creation. It may be even more closely compared with the Epistle to the Hebrews, which not only describes Him as “the express image of the essence of Godhead,” but with an emphasis which reminds us of the judaistic angel-worship condemned in this Epistle, exalts His absolute superiority over all who, however glorious, are but creatures of God and ministering spirits (Hebrews 1:1; Hebrews 2:4). It is evident, again, that it anticipates, yet with characteristic difference of expression, the doctrine of the “Word of God” taught by St. John, and the ascription to Him of essential eternity and Godhead, and both of physical and spiritual creation (John 1:1-5; John 1:14). It is this which gives to our Epistle an unique doctrinal significance and value. Called out by one of the changeful phases of a pretentious, but transitory error, it remains to us an imperishable treasure. We cannot doubt that till the end of time it will have fresh force of special application, as ancient forms of error recur with more or less of variety of outward aspect, and in their constant changes, developments, and antagonisms, stand in significant contrast with the unchanging gospel.
V. Analysis of the Epistle.—To this general description is subjoined, as before, an analysis of the Epistle, shortened from the analyses in the various chapters.
1. Doctrinal Section.
(1) SALUTATION ().
(a) Thanksgiving for their faith, love, and hope, the worthy fruits of the truth of the gospel taught by Epaphras ();
(b) Prayer for their fuller knowledge, fruitfulness, and patience ().
(2) THE DOCTRINE OF CHRIST (stated positively).
(a) His mediation in the forgiveness of sins ();
(b) His divine nature as the image of God and the Creator of all things ();
(c) His Headship over the Church and over all created being ();
(d) Special application of His mediation to the Colossians, and declaration of the com-mission of the preaching of this mystery to St. Paul himself ().
(3) THE DOCTRINE OF CHRIST (stated polemically).
(a) Declaration of St. Paul’s anxiety for them that they should remain rooted and established in the old truth of the gospel ();
(b) Warning against speculative error, denying or obscuring the truth—
( α) Of Christ’s true Godhead;
( β) Of the regeneration of spiritual circumcision in Him;
( γ) Of His sole atonement and triumph over the powers of evil ().
(c) Warning against practical superstition—
( α) Of trust in obsolete Jewish ordinances and mystic asceticism;
( β) Of superstitious worship of angels trenching on the sole Headship of Christ ().
(d) Exhortation to be—
( α) Dead with Christ to the rudiments of the world;
( β) Risen with Christ to the communion with God in heaven (Colossians 2:20 to Colossians 3:4).
2. Practical Section.
(1) GENERAL EXHORTATION—
(a) To mortification of the flesh in all the sins of the old unregenerate nature ();
(b) To putting on the new man in all the graces of the image of Christ, receiving the peace of God and doing all to His glory ().
(2) SPECIAL DUTIES OF HUMAN RELATIONSHIP—
(a) Wives and husbands ();
(b) Children and parents ();
(c) Slaves and masters (Colossians 3:22 to Colossians 4:1).
(a) Exhortation to prayer and watchfulness ();
(b) Mission of Tychicus and Onesimus ();
(c) Salutations from St. Paul’s companions ();
(d) Charge to exchange Epistles with Laodicea ();
(e) Final salutation (Colossians 4:18).
VI. Comparison with Epistle to the Ephesians.—To this outline of the Epistle may also be added a tabular comparison with the Epistle to the Ephesians, noting the general lines of parallelism and peculiarity.
EPHESIANS AND COLOSSIANS.
[In this Table whatever is common to the two Epistles is printed in ordinary type, and whatever is peculiar to each in italics.]
EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS.
1. Doctrinal Section.
1. (a) Salutation ().
(b) Doxology and thanksgiving for the divine election ().
(c) Prayer and thanksgiving for them ().
2. (a) Declaration of the “gathering up of all in Christ,” of His universal mediation for Jew and Gentile, and His headship over the Church, which is His Body, “the fulness of Him who filleth all in all” (; Ephesians 1:19-23).
(b) Fuller declaration of the union of Jew and Gentile in one covenant and temple, on sole condition of faith in Christ ().
(c) The commission to St. Paul of the mystery of the calling in of the Gentiles, once hidden, now revealed to men and angels ().
(d) Prayer that they may know that which passeth knowledge, by the indwelling of Christ, and be filled to me fulness of God ().
3. SUMMARY OF DOCTRINE:
(a) The unity of the Church in God;
(b) The diversity of gifts;
(c) The one object of all—personal and corporate edification ().
2. Practical Section.
1. (a) General exhortation to put off the old man and put on the new, by learning Christ and being taught in Christ ().
(b) Warning against various sins, as breaking unity with man ().
(c) Special warnings against bitterness, against impurity and lust, and against reckless excess and drunkenness (Ephesians 4:31 to Ephesians 5:21).
2. HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS:
(a) Wives and husbands (). (The sacredness of marriage as a type of the union between Christ and the Church.)
(b) Children and parents ().
(c) Slaves and masters ().
(a) Exhortation to put on the whole armour of God ().
(b) Request for their prayers ().
(c) Commendation of Tychicus ().
(d) “Peace be to the brethren.” “Grace be with all them who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity” ().
EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS.
1. Doctrinal Section.
1. (a) Salutation ().
(b) Prayer and thanksgiving for them (; Colossians 1:9-12).
(c) Special reference to the teaching of Epaphras and its effect ().
2. (a) Declaration of the universal mediation of Christ, and His headship over the Church and over all created being (; Colossians 1:18-22).
(b) Declaration of the true Godhead and creative power of Christ ().
(c) The commission to St. Paul of the preaching of the mystery once hidden, now revealed, “which is Christ in you the hope of glory” ().
(d) Special warnings against peculiar forms of speculative error and practical superstition, drawing them from Christ, and obscuring His sole mediation and true Godhead ().
3. SUMMARY OF DOCTRINE:
The unity of the soul with Christ, in which it is risen and exalted to heaven in Him (; comp. Ephesians 2:5-6).
2. Practical Section.
1. (a) General exhortation to mortify our earthly members, to put off the old man and put on the new ().
(b) Warning against various sins, as unworthy of “the elect of God” (Colossians 3:5; Colossians 3:8-9; Colossians 3:13-17).
2. HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS:
(a) Wives and husbands ().
(b) Children and parents ().
(c) Slaves and masters (Colossians 3:22 to Colossians 4:1).
(a) Request for their prayers ().
(b) Commendation of Tychicus and Onesimus ().
(c) Salutations from the brethren ().
(d) Message to Laodicea and Archippus, and direction as to the Letter from Laodicea ().
(e) “Remember my bonds. Grace be with you” (Colossians 4:18).
EXCURSUS ON NOTES TO COLOSSIANS.
EXCURSUS A: RELATION OF THE EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS TO GNOSTICISM.
IT is not intended in this Excursus to attempt any description of the actual historical developments of those singular phases of opinion, classed roughly under the name of “Gnosticism” (on which see Neander’s Church History, Sect. IV.), or any imitation of Dr. Lightfoot’s exhaustive and scholarly investigation of the connections in detail, between the form of speculative and practical heresy denounced by St. Paul at Colossæ, and the tenets of the various Gnostic systems. For the purposes of this Commentary it will be sufficient to inquire generally—
(1) What is the fundamental principle of Gnosticism?
(2) What were the chief problems with which it dealt?
(3) How far it could, in its early stages, reasonably ally itself with the Judaic system?
(4) What was its early relation to Christianity?
(1) Gnosticism, as the name implies, is the absolute devotion to Gnosis, or “knowledge.” It is, of course, obvious that “knowledge,” as it is the natural delight of man as man, so also is sanctioned by the Apostles themselves—by none more emphatically than St. Paul, and nowhere more emphatically by him than in the Epistles of the Captivity—as one of the signs and means of the growth of the spiritual life in the image of Christ. In every one of the Epistles of this period St. Paul earnestly desires for his converts progress in knowledge. (See for example Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 1:9; Colossians 1:9.) It was, therefore, perfectly in accordance with Apostolic teaching that Clement of Alexandria and his school extolled the “true Gnostic,” as representing some of the higher phrases of spiritual life, and reflecting in some senses, more distinctly than others, the likeness of the mind of God in Christ Jesus. But St. Paul, while he thus delights in true knowledge, also speaks (1 Timothy 6:20) of a “knowledge falsely so called,” and by this expression appears to brand with condemnation the spirit of what is commonly called Gnosticism. Where then lay the distinction between the false and the true “knowledge?”
In two points especially. First, Gnosticism exalted knowledge to an unwarranted supremacy in the Christian life. It made Christianity a philosophy, rather than a religion; as if its chief internal effect was enlightenment of the understanding rather than regeneration of the life, and its chief desire, in rising above self, was to discover abstract truths about God. and man, rather than to know God Himself, with “all the heart, all the soul, and all the strength,” as well as “all the mind.” Thus it fatally disturbed the true harmony of the speculative, the practical, and the devotional elements of the spiritual life. Energy in practical service, and love in devotion, it considered as good enough for the mass of men, but knowledge as the one mark of “the perfect.” Like all philosophies, it was aristocratic; for in work and in worship all might take their place, but only the few thinkers could “burst into the silent sea” of the higher speculation. There, by the esoteric doctrine, known only to the initiated, they believed themselves to be set apart from the ordinary Christians, for whom the exoteric or popular and imperfect teaching might suffice; and sometimes conceived that, with the higher mystic knowledge, they might gain also mysterious powers, and mysterious means of approach to a divine communion, unknown to others.
Secondly, Gnosticism also departed from the Apostolic teaching in relation to its method of knowledge. St. Paul describes, in a celebrated passage of the Epistle to the Ephesians, the process of the true knowledge of God. He prays for the Ephesians thus: “that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith, that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend . . . and know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with (or rather, up to) all the fulness of God.” The order is here profoundly significant. The knowledge, being a knowledge of a Personal God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, begins in faith—a faith which knows indeed in whom it believes, but then believes on Him, as having “the words of eternal life.” It is next deepened by love, called out by the infinite love of God in Christ, naturally manifesting itself, partly in adoration, partly in active service, and by both coming to know more and more what still passes complete knowledge. Finally, even in its ultimate growth, it is still in some sense the receiving of a divine light, which pours in, and fills the soul with the revelation of God. It does not fill itself, but it “is filled up to all the fulness of God.” Doubtless in all this the energy of the soul itself is implied—first to believe, then to love and to work, lastly to open itself to the divine truth: but it is throughout subordinate. If ever St. Paul allows it to be said, “Ye have known God,” he adds the correction at once, “or rather are known of God.” The process of Gnosticism was fundamentally different. Faith (it thought) was well for the vulgar; love, especially as shown in practice, was all they could hope to add to faith. But the Gnostic, accepting perhaps the vantage ground of ordinary gospel truth, took his stand on it, first to gaze, then to speculate, then to invent, in his own intellectual strength—now by profound thought, now by wild ingenuity of fancy, now by supposed mystic visions. As usual in such cases, he mixed up what he thought he saw with what he went on to infer by pure speculation, and turned what were simple speculations, probable or improbable, into professed discoveries of truth. Nothing is more notable in the full-grown Gnostic theories than the extraordinary luxuriance and arbitrariness of speculations, which, like the cycles and epicycles of the old Ptolemaic astronomy, stand self-condemned by their artificial ingenuity.
Now, it is clear that Gnosticism so viewed, although its full development waited for a later period, belongs in essence to all times. It arose again and again, in connection with Christianity, whenever the gospel had won its way to a position of such supremacy over actual life as to challenge speculation. This it had certainly done at the close of St. Paul’s Apostolic career, in all the civilised world of Asiatic, Greek, and Roman thought; but perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in the provinces of Asia Minor, the ancient home of Greek speculation, and now the common meeting-ground of Western philosophy and Eastern mysticism, and in the famous city of Alexandria, where Greek and Jewish ideas had long been inextricably blended together. As we may trace its modern counterpart in much of the scientific and metaphysical speculation of our own day, so also it is but natural that it should emerge even in the earliest times, when the gospel confronted a highly cultivated and inquisitive civilisation. Whatever truth there may be in the old traditions that Simon Magus was the first Gnostic, it is, at least, clear that the germs of Gnosticism lay in his view of Christianity, recognising in it a mystic power and wisdom greater than his own, but ignoring its moral and spiritual regeneration of the soul.
(2) The great subjects of Gnostic speculation, under all its strange and fantastic varieties, were again the two great questions which at all times occupy the human mind. The first is speculative. What is the relation between the Infinite and the Finite, the Absolute and the Phenomenal, the First Cause and the actual Universe? The second is moral. What is the nature and origin of the Evil, both physical and moral, which forces itself upon our notice, as a disturbing element in a world essentially good and beautiful? and how can we explain its permitted antagonism to the First Cause, which is presumably good? To these two fundamental questions, belonging to all time, were added two others belonging to the centuries just before and just after the manifestation of the Lord Jesus Christ. What place is to be assigned to the Jewish dispensation in the philosophy of God and Man? What are the character and significance of the Incarnation, which is the central Christian mystery?
With regard to the first question, Gnosticism universally accepted the conception of an Eternal God, sometimes recognised, whether vividly or dimly, as a Person, sometimes looked on as a mere depth (Bythos) or abyss of Impersonal Being. But it insisted that, in respect of the work of Creation of the world and of humanity, in the government of the world and in the manifestation of Himself to Man, God was pleased, or was by His Nature forced, to act through inferior beings, all receiving of His Pleroma (or, “fulness”) in different degrees of imperfection, and connected with Him in different degrees of nearness through “endless genealogies.” These emanations might be regarded as personal, such as the “Angels of God,” the “Word of God,” the “Spirit of God”; they might be half-personal, like the Æons of later speculation; they might be, where Platonism was strong, even the Ideas or Attributes of God, gathered up in the Logos. But it was through these emanations that the Supreme God made and sustained the world, created man as at once material, animal (psychic), and spiritual, and manifested Himself to man in different ages.
Next, in relation to the Moral Problem of the Existence of Evil, Gnosticism seems to have oscillated between the idea of a direct Dualism, wherever the Persian influence predominated, and the conception of a dead-weight of resistance to the Will of God, where-ever Monotheistic influence, especially Jewish influence, drove out the more pronounced conceptions of Dualism. But almost, if not quite, universally it traced the origin of evil to matter, conceived probably as eternal, certainly as independent, if not of the Supreme God, at any rate of the Creative Emanations, or of the One Being called the Demiurgus, or “Great Workman,” to whom the Creative was in most cases assigned. Those who were, or continued to be, “material,” enslaved to matter, were hopelessly evil; those who were “psychical,” having, that is, the soul of emotion and lower understanding as distinct from the spirit, were in a condition of imperfection, but with hope of rising to spirituality; those who were spiritual, and they only, were free from all evil, capable of communion with the Supreme God. The first class were the world; the second the mass of the religious; the last were the possessors of the higher knowledge. On what should be the end of this condition of imperfection and conflict, there was division of opinion. But a consummation either of conquest of evil, or of absorption into the Divine Pleroma, was looked for by all. In the meanwhile the Demiurgus, or the Creative powers of the world, were regarded, sometimes as rebellious, sometimes as blinded by ignorance, sometimes as simply finite and therefore imperfect; and to these qualities in them were traced the sin, the blindness, or the imperfection of the present dispensation.
From this conception of matter as the source of evil, and therefore of the body as the evil element in our nature, followed two rival and directly antagonistic conclusions as to the appetites and passions, and the view which the spiritual man should take of them and of the objects by which they were satisfied. The nobler conclusion was, in accordance with the purer Oriental religions, and the highest Platonic philosophy, that the body was simply a hindrance, a prison-house, a dead weight, a cause of blindness or dimness to the spiritual eye; and hence was to be kept under by a rigid asceticism, mortifying all its desires, and preserving the spiritual man, as much as possible, from any contact with the material. The other—perhaps the more common, certainly the ignobler—conclusion was that the indulgence of the body could not pollute any spirit, which was sustained by the higher knowledge, and, therefore, that what common opinion held to be “a shame” was to the spiritual man “a glory,” showing that the most sensual and reckless profligacy was to him a thing absolutely trivial and indifferent. It is obvious that these two rival theories would take up, and invest with a philosophical completeness, the ordinary tendencies represented by Pharisaism, on the one hand, and by Anti-nomianism on the other. Possibly by the natural law of reaction, the two extremes might often meet, in the same system, and even in the same individual.
A glance at these subjects will again show that Gnosticism, as in its principles, so in its chief problems, belongs to all times, and is essentially independent both of Judaism and Christianity. It was most natural that the claim of these problems to attention should assert itself in the later periods of the first century, even in reaction against the prosaic and practical systems of Stoicism and Epicureanism, then dominant in ordinary Roman thought, and, however opposed to each other, at least united in a contemptuous discouragement of all abstract speculation, especially in things divine. No home could be more congenial to such inquiries than the classic soil of philosophic speculation in Ephesus and the other cities of Asia, or the learned atmosphere of eclecticism which pervaded the Alexandrine school.
(3) But there were, as has been said above, two questions which presented themselves to the special forms of Gnosticism dominant at this period, and of these the first was of the relation of Gnostic theories to the Old Testament and the Jewish dispensation.
Now, in Judaism there was, on the one hand, much to attract the Gnostic. In it he found the one great living system of Monotheism, setting forth the absolute and infinite Godhead as the Eternal Source of being, invisible and incomprehensible to man; so infinitely-above all creatures that His very Name was too sacred to be pronounced by human lips. In it he also found, or could easily develop, the doctrine of angelic intervention, in the creation and the guidance of nature, in the intercourse of God with man, even in the government of human history, and the protection both of individuals and of races. The peculiar privilege of a chosen people, easily represented as belonging to them simply through a higher knowledge, and not less easily transferred as an inheritance to a spiritual Israel of the enlightened and perfect, supplied the element of exclusiveness inherent in all Gnostic systems; and all the ordinances of ritual, of typical sacrifices, and ceremonial purity, readily lent themselves to the conception of a certain mystic consecration of the privileged, who might be a “royal priesthood,” a prophetic and saintly order, before God, as distinct from “the people, who knew not the mystic law,” and were “accursed.” Nor would he omit to notice in the Sapiential books of the Old Testament—such as Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes—the exaltation of Wisdom, as distinct from faith and holiness, to a supreme place; and he would find that round the memory of the Wise Man had grown up a whole crowd of legends of mystic lore, of supernatural insight, and of an equally supernatural power over the world of angels and of demons. So far, the Gnostic might find in the Jewish dispensation, freely handled after the manner of Alexandria, much that would give a kind of backbone of solidity to his vague and artificial speculations.
On the other hand, Gnosticism was repelled from all that element in the Jewish dispensation which is ordinarily called the “Theocracy,” placing God in direct relation to the ordinary life of Israel, manifesting Him in the local sanctity of the Tabernacle or the Temple, honouring Him with physical sacrifice, setting forth His will in the clear and prosaic ordinances of the Law, dealing with all the people as a body, and as in many points equal before Him. For all this placed the Infinite Godhead in a direct, and, as it seemed to the Gnostic, an unworthy or an impossible contact, not only with man, but with that common life, that visible and tangible sphere of man’s being, which he utterly despised. To some extent it could be got rid of, as at Alexandria, by allegorical interpretations, and by the impositions on the most prosaic text of mystic meanings, known only to the initiated, and handed down in secret “traditions of men.” But where these failed, Gnosticism had a more sweeping remedy. It was to ascribe the whole system literally to the “disposition of angels,” to attribute all that was carnal in Judaism to the inferior Demiurgus, perhaps imperfectly ministering the will of the Supreme God, perhaps becoming himself the God of the Jewish nation and of the Old Testament; in either case, giving a dispensation fit only in itself for the lower psychical life, needing to be sublimed by the spiritual into a hidden wisdom, “a secret treasure of wisdom and knowledge.” Hereafter, when the Demiurgus came to be considered as antagonistic to the spiritual will of the Supreme God, this conception (as in the hands, for example, of Marcion) developed into an absolute hatred of Judaism, as a system entirely carnal, idolatrous, antagonistic to spiritual truth, and to the gospel so far as it was spiritual. But for this, in the first century, the time was not come. As yet, the growing power of Gnosticism treated Judaism as an ally, though perhaps in some degree a subject ally, in the victorious advance of its daring speculation.
Now, it has been shown, as with remarkable clearness by Dr. Lightfoot (in his Introduction to the Colossian Epistle, § 2), that some such alliance is actually trace-able in the strange Jewish brotherhood of the Essenes—marked as it was (by consent of all authorities) by a rigid asceticism, “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats;” by a denial of the resurrection of the body, as being a mere hindrance to the spiritual condition of the hereafter; by an abstinence from all sacrifices, as involving pollution, and perhaps as mere carnal ordinances; by mystic speculations as to the nature of the Godhead, and “the names of the angels,” and by occasional claim of supernatural powers of magic; by the jealous preservation of secret traditions, and by a careful separation of the initiated from the mass of their fellow-Israelites.
The chosen home of the Essenes, of whom we have detailed accounts, was in Palestine, on the borders of the Dead Sea. But it is hardly likely that so remarkable a movement should have confined itself to any single locality. Certainly in Alexandria, in the tenets of the sect of the Therapeutce, and in the teaching of Alexandrian Judaism, there was much of essential similarity to the Essenic system. Now, in close connection with our Epistle we notice the presence in Asia Minor of disciples of St. John Baptist, adhering, indeed, to “the way of the Lord,” but knowing nothing of the “baptism of the Lord Jesus” (). These would come naturally from Palestine, perhaps from. “the wilderness of Judæa,” where John had baptised, near the chosen home of Essenism. We find, moreover, that a great Alexandrian teacher (Apollos), also “knowing only the baptism of John,” had come down in the early part of the gospel to teach with singular power at Ephesus. That St. John himself, though probably quite erroneously, has been claimed as an Essene is well known. But in any case his ascetic and salutary life, his stern denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, his very baptism of repentance, his declaration of the nullity of mere sonship of Abraham, would certainly be congenial to the Essene mind. Josephus’ celebrated picture of his Essene teacher (quoted by Dr. Lightfoot, p. 161), reminds us, again and again, though with difference, of St. John Baptist himself. Certainly his disciples, when they had lost their master, clinging to his name in spite of his own warning of the transitoriness of his mission, might easily find in the Essenic system the rallying point which they needed, in order to preserve their distinctive character. Nor can we well forget the “vagabond Jews, exorcists,” seeking to cast out evil spirits by the mere charm of a sacred Name of One in whom they did not believe, but a Name which they, like Simon Magus, in Samaria, recognised as having in it a supernatural power of miracle; and the mystic “books” of “curious arts “burnt publicly at Ephesus. The Essenic ideas might easily spread beyond the limits of the strict Essenic brotherhood. If once planted in the prolific soil of Asia Minor, they could hardly fail to attain a rapid development.
Now, it is certainly with a form of Judæo-Gnosticism that St. Paul has to deal in his Colossian Epistle, and one, moreover, which bears some marked similarities to the Essenic type of thought. On the one hand, he denounces the enforcement of the Jewish festivals (Colossians 2:16), and probably of the rite of circumcision (Colossians 2:11): on the other, he warns against the “traditions of men” (Colossians 2:8), containing “a philosophy and vain deceit, ”, and alludes significantly to “the treasure, the hidden treasure of wisdom and knowledge.” He describes, again, a “worship of angels,” and an “intrusion into the things not seen,” at least by the ordinary eye (Colossians 2:18, where see Note); and a rigid asceticism going beyond Pharisaic observance of the Law, and crying out at every point, “Touch not, taste not, handle not” (Colossians 2:21). Indirectly, but very emphatically, he protests against exclusive pretensions, and would present “every man as perfect before Christ” (Colossians 1:22; Colossians 1:28). All these features belong unequivocally to Gnosticism, but to Gnosticism in its early stages, while still allied to Judaism, before it had attained to the independent luxuriance of later days. Nothing, for instance, is more striking than the reference to angelic natures, “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers,” as intervening between man and God, and the want of any vestige of allusion to the Æons of the later Gnosticism, even such as may perhaps be traced in the “oppositions” and “genealogies” of the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy 1:4; 1 Timothy 6:20; Titus 3:9). St. Paul uses the word Æon again and again (see Ephesians 1:21; Ephesians 2:2; Ephesians 2:7; Ephesians 3:9; Ephesians 3:11; Ephesians 3:21; Philippians 4:20; Colossians 1:26), but always in its proper sense of “age,” without a shadow of the strange half-personification of the later Gnostic use. Throughout there is a distinct appropriateness to the time of the imprisonment at Rome, and just that union of similarity and dissimilarity to the later growths of Gnosticism which might be expected at this early date.
(4) But still more important and interesting is the question of the relation of Gnosticism to Christianity indicated by the Colossian Epistle. In the full-grown development of Gnosticism there were evidently two phases of this relation. In some cases the Gnostic theory, as a whole, stands out independent of Christianity, simply weaving some ideas derived from the gospel into the complexity of its comprehensive system. Such seems to have been, for example, the attitude towards Christianity of Basilides and Valentinus. In other cases, of which Marcion may be taken as a type, it identified itself in the main with Christianity, striving to mould it by free handling to its own purpose, and appealed to the Christian Scriptures, expurgated and falsified in its own peculiar sense. Moreover, in the same advanced stages Christianity was clearly distinguished by it from Judaism;” the Christ “was independent of the Demiurgus, the supposed author of the Jewish dispensation, and stood in far closer union with the Supreme Deity. Sometimes, as again notably in the system of Marcion, Christianity was characterised in a series of antitheses, as opposed to Judaism, and the salvation of the Christ was represented as a deliverance from the power of the God of the Jew. But a glance at the Epistle to the Colossians will show that of these things there is as yet no trace. Christianity had already broken through the narrow limits of Jewish legalism; the struggle marked in the Galatian and Roman Epistles had terminated in the complete victory of the freedom of the gospel. But, just as the Epistle to the Hebrews shows that there was still need to assert the transitoriness of the Jewish Ritual, Priesthood, and Sacrifice, so in this Epistle we observe that Jewish mysticism still claimed some dominion over the infant Church. Not till the hand of Providence had cut the knot of entanglement by the fall of Jerusalem, and the various manifestations of the bitter hostility of the Jews towards Christianity, was the dissociation complete.
In the eyes of Gnostic speculation of the East, Christianity probably as yet showed itself only as a sublimated and spiritualised Judaism, still presenting all the features which had excited sympathy, and simply crowning the hierarchy of angels by the manifestation of Him, who was emphatically “the Angel of the Lord;” while, on the other hand, it eliminated the narrowness of legalism, the carnality of ritual, and the close connection of the divine kingdom with common-place political and social life, which in Judaism had been an offence. Hence, in the phase already described at Colossæ, without throwing off its connection with Judaism, Gnosticism eagerly sought to lay hold of the new religion, to accept it in all its simplicity for the vulgar, and to mysticise it for the perfect into a higher knowledge. The error which vexed the Church at Colossæ appears still to approach it from without, much as the earlier Judaism had approached the Churches of Antioch or Galatia. Perhaps St. Paul’s foreboding words at Miletus had been justified by the rise “among their own selves of men speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them;” but the body of the Church seems still untouched, and is bidden to beware lest any man should “spoil” them, “judge” them, or “beguile them of their reward,” by drawing them to this new phase of error.
It has been remarked by Neander that Cerinthus, born at Alexandria, and certainly in the days of St. John at Ephesus a propagator of his doctrine in the Churches of Asia Minor, is the Gnostic, whose system is a link between Judaism and Gnosticism proper. Certainly what can be traced as to his speculations on the function of the Angels, or of one Supreme Angel, in the Creation of the world and in the giving of the Mosaic laws, agrees well enough with the indications of the Colossian heresy. But of the distinctive points of his treatment of Christ—namely, his conception that the Demiurgus was ignorant of the will of the Supreme Deity, which was revealed by the Christ; his distinction between the man Jesus of Nazareth, and “the Christ,” descending upon Him in the form of the dove at His baptism, and leaving Him before the Passion—we find no trace in the Colossian Epistle. The direct warnings of St. Paul refer only to the errors of the Judæo-Gnosticism. It is rather by the declaration of the positive truth of the true Godhead of the Lord Jesus Christ, His creative function, His infinite exaltation above all principality and power, and above all, the weighty declaration that in Him “all the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily,” that, as in a prophetic jealousy, he guards against the developments of Gnostic heresy in the future. We trace here a distinction from the more direct warnings even of the Pastoral Epistles— against the teaching in the Church of “other doctrines,” of “fables and endless genealogies” of Gnostic emanation; the explaining away of the future resurrection; the “seducing spirits and doctrines of demons”—i.e., of beings intermediate between God and man; which were united with the asceticism “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats”; “the questions and strifes of words,” and the “oppositions “(Gnostic antitheses) “of knowledge falsely so called”; the apostasy “of all which are in Asia,” and the heresy “eating like a canker “into the very heart of the Church, which will no longer “endure sound doctrine.” (; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 1 Timothy 6:4; 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:3). There is a still more marked distinction from the explicit warnings of St. John, protesting emphatically against the distinctive assertion of Gnostic heresy, that “Jesus Christ had not come in the flesh,” and dwelling on the Incarnation of “the Word of Life,” the Son, “to have whom is to have the Father,” in those weighty declarations, every word of which seems charged with reference to Gnostic error. Everything shows that the heresy noted at Colossæ belongs to an earlier stage than even the Gnosticism of Cerinthus. In contemplating it, we see the last expiring struggle of Judaism, and can just trace, inextricably entwined with it, the yet deadlier error, which was here-after to separate from it, and even to trample on it, and to advance over its dead body to the attack on the living energy of Christianity.
These considerations may suffice to mark with tolerable clearness the relation of the Epistle to Gnosticism. They certainly appear to show how entirely erroneous and inconsistent with the facts of the case is the idea, so confidently advanced, that the Epistle indicates a knowledge of full-grown Gnosticism fatal to its Apostolic origin. But they have far greater value, as enabling us better to understand its deeply interesting picture of the development, alike of Christian truth, and of the heresy, destined hereafter to assail or undermine it, in the closing years of the ministry of St. Paul
EXCURSUS B: THE APOCRYPHAL EPISTLE TO THE LAODICEANS.
The translation of this Epistle here given is taken from the Latin (in which alone it is found), quoted by Dr. Lightfoot in the Appendix to his edition of the Epistle to the Colossians, with a conjectural rendering back into the Greek (which he thinks may have been the original) and two old English versions of the fifteenth century. He also gives a full description of the various Latin MSS., from which it appears that the earliest (the Codex Fuldensis) is a Vulgate New Testament of A.D. 546, in which the Epistle occurs between the Epistle to the Colossians and the First Epistle to Timothy. A glance at it will show that it is little more than a tame compilation of phrases, which, however, are taken not from the Ephesians or Colossians, but mostly from the Philippians, and that it has no bias or evidence of distinctive purpose whether for good or for evil. It certainly is not the Epistle spoken of in the Muratorian Fragment, as “in Marcionis heresim conficta.” Its very simplicity induces a charitable hope that originally it may have been only “a pious imagination,” made without idea of forgery, which subsequently was accepted as claiming to be a genuine Epistle of St. Paul.
It runs thus:—
“Paul an Apostle, not of men, nor through man, but through Jesus Christ, to the brethren who are in Laodicea; grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“I thank Christ in all my supplications that ye are abiding in Him, and continuing steadfast in His works, waiting for the promise even unto the Day of Judgment. Neither let the vain words of some who teach beguile you, that they should turn you away from the truth of the gospel, which was preached unto you by me. And now shall God bring it to pass that they which are from me be serving to the furtherance of the truth of the gospel, and doing all goodness in the works of salvation (and) of eternal life.
“And now my bonds which I suffer in Christ are manifest; in which I am glad and rejoice; and this shall turn to my everlasting salvation, which also itself is wrought by your prayers, and the supply of the Holy Ghost, whether it be by life or by death. For to me both to live in Christ and to die is joy; and His mercy shall work out the same thing in you, that ye may have the same love, and be of one mind.
“Therefore, my dearly beloved, as ye heard in my presence with you, so hold fast and work in the fear of God, and it shall be to you unto everlasting life. For it is God which worketh in you. And do without drawing back, whatsoever ye do.
“Finally, my dearly beloved, rejoice in Christ, and beware of those who are greedy of filthy lucre. Let all your petitions be made known unto God, and be steadfast in the mind of Christ. Whatsoever things are sound, and true, and pure, and righteous, and lovely, do; and what ye have heard and received keep in your heart. And peace shall be with you.
“The saints salute you. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with your spirit, Cause this Epistle to be read to the Colossians, and that the Letter of the Colossians be read also to you.”
Eve of Ascension