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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

- Colossians

by Philip Schaff






§ 1. The Congregation at Colossæ. [1]

THE Epistle before us names three cities, in which there were Christian disciples: Colossæ, Laodicea (chaps. Colossians 2:1; Colossians 4:13; Colossians 4:16), and Hierapolis (chap. Colossians 4:13). All three were situated near each other, in the southwestern part of Asia Minor. Colossae was in the valley of the Lycus, not far from its junction with the Mæander; the other two cities overhanging the valley on opposite sides. In the days of the Apostle, Laodicea was the most prominent place, and Colossae the smallest, having declined in importance during the centuries since the times of Herodotus and Xenophon, both of whom mention it as a large and prosperous city. The site of Colossae, which has been identified only recently, is about three miles north of the place now called Chonæ. Herodotus speaks of a chasm near Colossae through which the river Lycus passes. Both earthquakes and inundations have been frequent in the valley, and doubtless greatly altered the face of the country. All three cities were in Phrygia, but Laodicea and Hierapolis were near the borders of Caria and Syria, and hence were sometimes reckoned as belonging to these divisions respectively. In the latter half of the first century all three cities were in the proconsular (Roman) province of Asia, of which Ephesus was the capital. In later times Phrygia Pacatiana became a separate province, with Laodicea as the capital.

Although the Apostle had passed ‘through the region of Phrygia and Galatia’ (Acts 16:6) in his second missionary journey, and during the third (Acts 18:23) revisited the churches founded there, it is quite certain that he had not been in Colossae or Laodicea (see chap. Colossians 2:1). ‘Phrygia,’ in the passages referred to, may not have included the valley of the Lycus; the details of the journeys point to another route, and our Epistle both expresses and implies that the Apostle had not visited Colossæ. The fact that he knew and wrote to Philemon, a Colossian, as well as his acquaintance with Epaphras and others, does not oppose this view. Ephesus was the capital of the province, and during Paul’s prolonged stay there he could not avoid meeting some visitors from Colossæ. Among these was Epaphras, who was probably won to Christ by the Apostle himself, and who first preached the gospel to these cities in the valley of the Lycus. ‘He is certainly no unimportant personage; Paul describes him as his helper (chap. Colossians 1:7), refers to his correct teaching (chaps. Colossians 1:4; Colossians 1:7; Colossians 2:6), to his indefatigable, energetic zeal (chap. Colossians 4:12), which impelled him not merely to prayer to God (chap. Colossians 4:12) on behalf of the church, but also to go to the Apostle at Rome and share his imprisonment (chap. Colossians 1:8; Philemon 1:23), and which made him shun no labor for the neighboring churches in Laodicea and Hierapolis also’ (Braune). The presence of this fellow-laborer at Rome, and the relation of Onesimus to the Christian brother (Philemon) at Colossæ, occasioned the writing of an Epistle to a place comparatively so unimportant.

[1] The final diphthong of the Greek form should in any case be represented by the English ‘æ.’ It should be remarked that another form of the name (Colassæ) occurs in our oldest manuscripts, mainly, however, in the title, headings, and subscriptions, very rarely in chap. Colossians 1:1. Upon coins, in inscriptions and classical writers, Colossæ is usually found. The explanation is simple: Colossae was the old name; after the time of Paul a provincial usage arose, which led the Byzantine writers to write ‘Colassæ.’ The scribes left the correct form in the text, but altered it in the titles, etc., which were of later origin. The manuscripts present other peculiarities which accord with this explanation.

The believers at Colossæ were mainly of Gentile origin (chap. Colossians 2:13), though Jewish influences are indicated in the Epistle (chap. Colossians 2:16-21). Under Antiochus the Great two thousand Jewish families had been transplanted into Phrygia and Lydia, and there is abundant evidence that many Jews resided in Laodicea.

There are no hints of ecclesiastical organization other than the exhortation through the church to Archippus (chap. Colossians 4:17); and it is probable that the gospel had not been preached in Colossæ until shortly before the close of Paul’s stay in Ephesus (A. D. 58), about five years previous to the date of the letter. The Apostle praises the Colossian believers (chaps. Colossians 1:2; Colossians 1:4; Colossians 1:6; Colossians 2:5), and gives no hint that their relations to him had been disturbed. But they were in danger. False teachers were among them. Hence the warnings of the Epistle, which distinguish it from the similar Epistle to the Ephesians.

§ 2. The False Teaching at Colossæ.

Evidently all the churches named in the Epistle were exposed to the same danger (chaps. Colossians 2:1; Colossians 4:13). It was a Phrygian heresy. The Phrygians were a gifted people; and various forms of religion and of philosophical speculation found a ready welcome among them. Hellenic philosophy, Oriental mysticism, Jewish asceticism were elements we discover in analyzing the errors at which our Epistle is aimed. Such elements would find among the Phrygians favorable circumstances for their development, but there is no indication that, in the time of the Apostle, they had as yet been combined in one definite system. Nor can we with certainty determine in precisely what form these three elements were present Hellenic philosophy is least apparent in its influence; nor can we agree that ‘a meeting of the Persic and Zoroastrian religion with Judaism was sufficient to account for all the dangerous teaching referred to’ (Davies). The form of Judaistic influence seems to point to Essenic tendencies, while many of the terms used were afterwards employed by the Gnostics. Yet it cannot be said that the errors were distinctively Essenic or Gnostic, especially if the latter term is taken to represent a system somewhat developed. It was a formative period; all was in flow; ‘the winged seeds were floating in the atmosphere, and falling into a soil adapted to them, and waiting as if to receive them; in the course of years they produced an ample harvest’ (Eadie). It seems most probable that but one class of teachers is referred to, who held the various erroneous opinions opposed by the Epistle. These false doctrines, as indicated by Paul’s polemics, were within the church (comp. chaps. Colossians 1:23; Colossians 2:6; Colossians 2:19). Their Judaistic tendency appears from chap. Colossians 2:11; Colossians 2:16. which refer to circumcision and Jewish feast days. Even more marked, however, is the ascetic tendency, seeking ‘not sanctification of the life and character by ethical means, but subjugation, mortification of the flesh by physical or chemical, or dietetic methods; chaps. Colossians 2:23; Colossians 3:6 ’ (Braune). A false view of angels was closely joined with low views of Christ, both as to His Person and His Work (see chap. Colossians 1:15-23; chap. Colossians 2:9). The relation between these two mistakes is an obvious one, and has not ceased. While these views were probably not held in any developed systematic form, they were doubtless set forth with the pretensions of a system of ‘philosophy’ (chap. Colossians 2:8), which tacitly claimed superiority to the gospel of Christ. Many attempts have been made to define these false teachers more closely, but with poor success. They have been variously regarded as Jews of every shade, from Pharisees and Essenes to Alexandrian Neo-Platonists; as heathen philosophers of every school; as Gnostics, Cabbalists; while Mayerhoff, in order to establish a later origin for the Epistle, finds it aimed at the arch-heretic Cerinthus.

‘It may be noticed that the Apostle does not anywhere in this Epistle charge the false teachers with immorality of life, as he does the similar ones in the Pastoral Epistles most frequently. The inference from this is plain. The false teaching was yet in its bud. Later down, the bitter fruit began to be borne; and the mischief required severer treatment’ (Alford). It may be added, that error is most difficult to combat before it bears its fruit. The excellent character of the false teachers did not warrant the Apostle in withholding rebuke, nor did it then (or ever since) hinder the error from its producing its evil practical results. False views of the Person and Work of Christ must ultimately lead to lives less like His; since He is our Life.

§ 3. Time and Place of Composition of the Epistle.

In the Introduction to the Epistle to the Ephesians (§ 2) it has been shown that these two Epistles and that to Philemon were written at the same time. The usual view is there defended, namely, that Rome was the place, and the earlier part of the first Roman imprisonment the time (about A. D. 62).

A renewed study of these Epistles inclines me to favor more strongly the view that the Epistle to the Colossians was written after that to the Ephesians, mainly because the more practical, concise, abrupt Epistle seems more likely to have followed the fuller and more lofty one. This is probably rather a matter of feeling than of demonstration.

§ 4. Character and Contents of the Epistle.

While this Epistle closely resembles that to the Ephesians, the points of difference are clearly marked. ‘There the overflowing fulness of the thought struggles with the expression, here in parallel passages we find a briefer, acuter, indeed a more dear and mature encasing of the thought’ (Braune). It is characterized by a pithy brevity amounting at times to abruptness; many unusual terms (thirty-five) occur, mainly in the polemic portion (chap. 2), but the language throughout is nervous and forcible, and the independence of the writer unmistakable.

The Epistle contains many personal allusions, both to the Apostle’s situation and to the Church and its circumstances, while the concluding portion (chap. Colossians 4:7-18) is wholly personal. The polemic portion (chap. 2) has no corresponding passage in the larger Epistle, and in itself points to a different class of readers.

The theme is in general the same as that of the Epistle to the Ephesians, yet the danger threatening the Colossian Christians gives to this theme its distinct form. There the Apostle writes of the Church in Christ, of the oneness of believers in Christ, of the mystical Christ; here he writes of the Person of Christ, of the believer’s union with Christ, and only in Christ. In Ephesians the ground tone is: one in Christ the Head; here it is: Christ the only Head. The polemical part (chap. 2) is based upon the Christological statement of chap. 1, while the hortatory portion (chaps. 3, 4), though closely resembling the latter half of the other Epistle, is nevertheless modified by the difference of theme. Braune well says of the leading idea: ‘Christ’s Person is the Lord of Eternity, ruling heaven and earth, the visible and invisible (chaps. Colossians 1:14-19; Colossians 2:9), who, by entering into our race and the history of humanity (chap. Colossians 1:18), has reconciled all things and all classes to God (chap. Colossians 1:20-21), has so spanned all centuries of development, that apart from Him and before Him even the highest mental culture and noblest morality are but rudiments, elements of the world which pass away (Colossians 2:8); in Him are given Peace (chap. Colossians 1:20), Life (chaps. Colossians 1:18; Colossians 2:13; Colossians 3:1-3), Salvation and Blessedness (chaps. Colossians 1:22; Colossians 3:4), likewise all virtue (chap. Colossians 3:5-14) in all the moral relations of life (chaps. Colossians 3:18; Colossians 4:1), and this is done by the ethical method of faith (chap. Colossians 1:23; Colossians 2:13), in obedience to His Word (chap. Colossians 3:16), in vital fellowship with Him (chaps. Colossians 2:11-15; Colossians 3:1-4), and in prayer (chap. Colossians 4:2), so that Christ for us becomes Christ in us (chaps. Colossians 2:13-15; Colossians 3:3-4).’

The Epistle may be divided into four parts: [1]

[1] The brief paragraphs (chaps. Colossians 2:1-3; Colossians 3:1-4) are respectively transitions from the doctrinal to the polemical, and from the polemical to the hortatory portions. Hence the former is often included in the first part and the latter in the second. But in each case the connection with what follows seems to be closer; see notes on these passages.

I. Chap. 1. DOCTRINAL PART: Christ the Head of all things, in Creation and Redemption.

II. Chap. 2. POLEMICAL PART: Be not led away from Christ the Head, either to false speculations or ascetic practices.

III. Chaps. Colossians 3:1 to Colossians 4:6. HORTATORY PART: Having died and risen with Christ, the Head, live accordingly.

IV. Chap. Colossians 4:7-18. CONCLUSION. Explanations, Salutations, and Farewell Greeting.


Address and Greeting; chap. Colossians 1:1-2.

I. Doctrinal Part: Christ the Head of all things, in Creation and Redemption; chap. 1.

1. Thanksgiving for the faith and love of the readers (Colossians 1:3-8).

2. Prayer for progress in the knowledge of Christ as Head of all things (vers.

( a.) The prayer (Colossians 1:9-12).

( b.) Redemption in Christ (Colossians 1:13-14).

( c.) The Person of Christ as Head of all things in Creation and Redemption (Colossians 1:15-19).

( d.) The Work of Christ as reconciling all things through the blood of His cross (Colossians 1:20-23).

3. The Apostle’s joy in his sufferings and labors for Christ (Colossians 1:24-29).

II. Polemical Part: Be not led away from Christ the Head; chap. 2

1. Warning against being led away by the philosophy of the false teachers (Colossians 2:1-15).

( a.) Transition paragraph: Expression of the Apostle’s anxiety respecting them (Colossians 2:1-3).

( b.) Exhortation to abide in the truth they had been taught (Colossians 2:4-8).

( c.) The Person and Work of Christ over against the false teachings respecting ordinances and angels (Colossians 2:9-15).

2. Two special warnings enforced (Colossians 2:16-23).

( a.) Warning against ritualistic prohibitions (Colossians 2:16-17).

( b.) Warning against angel worship (Colossians 2:18-19).

( c.) These enforced by the fact of their having died with Christ (Colossians 2:20-23).

III. Hortatory Part: Live as those should live who have risen with Christ; chap. Colossians 3:1 to Colossians 4:6.

1. Transition paragraph: Fellowship with the Exalted Christ the motive to the new life (Colossians 3:1-4).

2. General exhortations (Colossians 3:5-17). Negative (Colossians 3:5-11) and positive (Colossians 3:12-17).

3. Special precepts as to household relations; chaps. Colossians 3:18 to Colossians 4:1.

( a.) Wives and husband s (Colossians 3:18-19).

( b.) Children and parents (Colossians 3:20-21).

( c.) Servants and masters (Colossians 3:22-25; Colossians 4:1).

4. Concluding exhortations, in relation to prayer and conduct toward those without (Colossians 4:2-6).

IV. Conclusion, mainly personal; chap. Colossians 4:7-18.

1. Personal intelligence (Colossians 4:7-9).

2. Greetings from and to various persons (including a message to Laodicea) (Colossians 4:10-17).

3. Farewell greeting (Colossians 4:18).

§ 5. The Genuineness of the Epistle.

In the Introduction to the Epistle to the Ephesians attention has been called to some aspects of the question respecting the genuineness of this Epistle. The notices in the letter itself, even more distinctly than in the case of the longer Epistle, assert a Pauline authorship (comp. especially the first and last sections). Eight persons are named who belong to the circle of the Apostle’s companions. If this is a forgery, it is a very bold one.

Nor is there anything in the style or contents of the Epistle which is inconsistent with the claim it makes. There are indeed peculiarities of language, but these can be accounted for by the subject-matter, especially in the polemical portion. Nor are the errors opposed other than those which might arise in the times of the Apostle (comp. § 2).

The testimony of the early Church shows no doubt of its genuineness, and the objections of Schrader, Baur, and Mayerhoff have only the precarious foundation afforded by those peculiarities which, in their view, point to a later origin. Mayerhoff regards it as a forged polemic against the heresy of Cerinthus (in the second century), while Baur finds it a Gnostic production against Ebionitism. Each of these theories has been successfully overthrown by historical arguments as well as those derived from the phenomena of the Epistle. But, as Meyer well remarks, ‘the forging of such an Epistle as ours would be more wonderful than its genuineness.’

‘To class such an Epistle, so marked not only by distinctive peculiarities of style, but by the nerve, force, and originality of its argument, with the vague productions of later Gnosticism, is to betray such a complete want of critical perception, that we can scarcely wonder that such views have been both very generally and very summarily rejected’ (Ellicott). That the Epistle teaches any other gospel than that taught in the undisputed Epistles of Paul cannot be proven; that it contains words not found in them makes nothing against the hand of so versatile an author: ‘non est cujusvis hominis, Paulinum pectus effingere; tonat, fulgurat, meras flammas loquitur Paulus ’ (Erasmus).

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