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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator


- Colossians

by Joseph Exell



I. The Church to which it was written.--

1. The locality and people. A rich canton of Southern Phrygia, in particular the small basin of the Lycus, a tributary of the Meander, saw some active Christian centres formed within it. Three towns very close to each other--Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis--filled it with life. Colossae, which in old days was the most important, appeared to decline; it was a town which remained faithful to ancient ways, and did not renew itself. Laodicea and Hierapolis, on the contrary, became, in consequence of the Roman Empire, very considerable cities. The very soul of all this beautiful country is Mount Cadmus, the patriarch of all the mountains of Western Asia--a gigantic mass, full of dark precipices, and keeping its snows all the year round. The waters which flow down from it freshen one of the slopes of the valley, upon which are orchards filled with fruit trees, traversed by rivers full of fish, and enlivened with storks which are quite tame. The other side is quite given up to the strangest freaks of nature. The encrusting properties of the calcareous waters of one of the affluents of the Lycus, and the enormous mass of hot water which falls in a cascade from the mountains of Hierapolis, have struck the plain with sterility, and formed crevasses, quaint caverns, beds of subterranean streams, fantastic piles, and layers like petrified snow, serving as a reservoir for waters which reflect all the colours of the rainbow; deep hollows whence far resounding waters rush on in a succession of cataracts. On this side the heat is extreme, the soil being nothing but one vast plain paved with calcareous blocks. But upon the heights of Hierapolis, the purity of the air, the splendid light, the view of Mount Cadmus, swimming like another Olympus in a lustrous atmosphere, the burnt-up summits of Phrygia fading into the blue heaven in a rosy tint, the opening of the valley of the Meander, the oblique outlines of Messogls, the far white summits of Tmolus, produce a truly dazzling effect. There lived St. Philip and Papias; there Epictetus was born. All the valley of the Lycus presents the same character of dreamy mysticism. The population was not Greek by origin; it was partly Phrygian. There was also round Mount Cadmus an old Semitic settlement. Jewish colonies had been transplanted from Babylon two centuries and a half before, and had first brought with them some of those industries (carpet weaving, etc.) which, under Roman Emperors, produced in the country such opulence and such powerful guilds or companies. Christianity followed, and remained for three centuries the religion of the country. A great number of the Christians of Ephesus and Rome came from Phrygia. The names most frequently found upon Phrygian monuments are the old Christian names, Trophimus, Tychicus, Tryphena, Onesimus. (E. Renan.)

2. The origin, growth, and circumstances of the Church. There is no ground for supposing that when Paul wrote this Epistle he had ever visited the Church, but if he was not directly its evangelist, it was indirectly indebted to him for its knowledge of the truth. Epaphras had been his delegate, and by Epaphras the Colossians had been converted to the gospel (Colossians 1:6)
. How or when their conversion took place we have no direct information. Yet it can hardly be wrong to connect the event with St. Paul’s long sojourn at Ephesus (a.d. 54-57). It is possible that during this period he paid short visits to neighbouring cities, but if so these interruptions to his residence in Ephesus must have been slight and infrequent (
Acts 20:18). Yet though the apostle himself was stationary, his teaching and influence spread far and wide (Acts 19:10; Acts 19:26), and the first Epistle to the Corinthians contains salutations, not from Ephesus alone, but from the “Churches of Asia” generally (1 Corinthians 16:19; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:8; Romans 16:5). To Ephesus, as the metropolis of Western Asia, would flock crowds from all the towns and villages far and near. Thence they would carry away, each to his own neighbourhood, the spiritual treasure they had unexpectedly found. Among the places thus represented at the Asian metropolis would doubtless be the cities lying in the valley of the Lycus. The bonds of amity between these places and Ephesus were unusually strong. The “Concord of the Laodiceans and Ephesians,” the “Concord of the Hierapolitans and Ephesians,” are repeatedly commemorated on medals struck for the purpose. Thus the Colossians, Epaphras and Philemon, the latter with his household (Philemon 1:1-2; Philemon 1:19), and perhaps also the Laodicean Nymphas (Colossians 4:15) would fall in with the Apostle to the Gentiles, and hear from his lips the first tidings of a heavenly life. But whatever,service may have been rendered by Philemon at Colossae or by Nymphas at Laodicea, it was to Epaphras especially that all three cities were indebted for their knowledge of the Gospel (Colossians 4:12-13), and he looked upon himself as responsible for the spiritual well-being of all alike. We pass over a period of five or six years. St. Paul’s first captivity in Rome is now drawing to a close. During this interval he has not once visited the valley of the Lycus. Two circumstances, one affecting his public duties, another private and personal, at this time conspired to bring Colossae prominently before his notice.

II. Where, when, and under what circumstances it was written.--There are in the Epistle indications of the time and place of writing similar to those found in Ephesians and Philippians. It was written in prison (Colossians 4:10; Colossians 4:18)
. Like the former it is sent by Tychicus, with precisely the same official commendation of him (
Colossians 4:7-8, cf. 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) correspond, with the exception of Justus, with those mentioned to Philemon (verses 23, 24); two of them, Aristarchus and 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 Caesarea (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 is, in all probability, our Epistle to the Ephesians, an encyclical letter addressed to sister Churches. All these indications point to one conclusion--not only that Colossians is one of the Epistles of the first captivity (a.d. 61-63), but that it is a twin Epistle with the Ephesians, sent at the same time and by the same hand, and designed to be interchanged with it in the Churches of Colossae and Laodicea. (Bishop Barry.)

III. Its occasion and subject.--To the apostle’s lodgings there comes a brother from Colossae, Epaphras by name, who brings with him bad news which burdens Paul’s heart with solicitude. Many a night would he and Epaphras spend in deep converse on the matter, with the stolid Roman legionary to whom Paul was chained sitting wearily by. The tidings were that a strange disease, hatched in that hot-bed of religious fancies, the dreamy East, was threatening the faith of the Colossian Christians. A peculiar form of heresy, compounded of Jewish ritualism and Oriental mysticism, was being vigorously preached. The characteristic Eastern dogma, that matter is evil and the source of evil, had begun to infect them. The conclusion was quickly drawn that God and matter must be antagonistic, and so the creation and government of this world could not have come directly from Him. The endeavour to keep the pure Divinity and the gross world as far apart as possible, while yet an intellectual necessity forbade the entire breaking cf the bond between them, led to the busy working of the imagination, which spanned the void gulf with a chain of intermediate beings, emanations, abstractions, each approaching more nearly to the material. Such notions made wild work with the plainest moral teachings of conscience and Christianity. For if matter be the source of all evil, then the fountain of each man’s sin is to be found not in his own perverted will, but in his body; and the cure of it is to be reached, not by faith, which plants a new life in the sinful spirit, but simply by ascetic mortification of the flesh. Strangely united with these teachings were the narrowest doctrines of Jewish ritualism, insisting on circumcision, laws regulating food, the observance of feast days. It is a monstrous combination, a cross between a Talmudical rabbi and a Buddhist priest, and yet it is not unnatural that, after soaring in these lofty regions of speculation, where the air is too thin to support life, men should be glad to get hold of the externals of an elaborate ritual. Extremes meet. If you go far enough east you are west. But what does all this matter to us? The truth which Paul opposed to these heresies is all-important for every age. It was simply the Person of Christ as the only manifestation of the Divine, the link between God and the Universe, its Creator and Preserver, the Life and Light of men, the Lord and Inspirer of the Church. Christ has come, laying His hand upon both God and man; therefore there is no need or place for a misty crowd of angelic beings or shadowy abstractions to bridge the gulf across which His incarnation flings its single solid arch. Christ has been bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, therefore that cannot be the source of evil in which the fulness of the Godhead has dwelt as in a shrine. Christ has come, the fountain of life and holiness, therefore there is no more place for ascetic mortifications nor for Jewish scrupulosities. To urge these and the like truths this letter was written. Its central principle is the sovereign and exclusive mediation of Jesus Christ, the God-man, the victorious antagonist cf these dead speculations, and the destined conqueror of all the doubts and confusions of this day. If we grasp with mind and heart that truth, we can possess our souls in patience, and in its light see light, where else is darkness and uncertainty. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)

IV. Its genuineness.--

1. The external testimony is considerable. The following verses are quoted or referred to in the Apostolic Fathers: Colossians 1:16 by Barnabas; Colossians 1:18 by Clement; Colossians 1:25 by Ignatius; Colossians 3:4 by Ignatius, and Colossians 3:14 by Clement. Marcion, the earliest herald of sceptical criticism, who rejected Timothy and Titus, admitted Colossians and Philemon. It is cited by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and still earlier by Theophilus of Antioch and Justin Martyr. All candid criticism agrees with M. Renan’s conclusion that the Epistle is “to be received unhesitatingly as the work of St, Paul.” (Bishop Alexander.)

2. Internal evidence. None but Paul could have written it. To say that it is un-Pauline in doctrine is to make an arbitrary assertion, since it states no single truth -which is not involved in his previous teachings. The fact that it is a splendid development of those teachings, or rather an expanded statement of them to meet new exigencies, is simply in its favour. Nor do I see how any one familiar with the style and mind of St. Paul can fail to recognize his touch. That the style should lack the fire and passion of the Epistle to the Galatians, and the easy’ fervent overflowing of thought and feeling in those to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Philippians, is perfectly natural. Of all the converts to whom Paul had written, the Colossians alone were entire strangers to him. He had not, indeed, visited Rome, but many members of that Church were personally known to him, and he was writing on a familiar theme which had for years been occupying his thoughts. The mere fact that he had already written on the same topic to the Galatians would make his thoughts flow more easily. But in writing to the Colossians he was handling a new theme, combatting a recent error, with which among Christians he had not come into personal contact, and of which he merely knew the special characteristics at second hand. When in the Epistle to the Ephesians he reverts to the same kind of conceptions, his sentences run with far greater ease. The style of no man is stereotyped, and least of all is this the case with a man so many sided, so emotional, so original as St. Paul. His manner reflects to an unusual degree the impressions of the time, place, mood in which he was writing. K thousand circumstances unknown to us may have given to this Epistle that rigid character, that want of spontaneity in the movement of the sentences which led even Ewald into the improbable conjecture that the words were Timothy’s, though the subject and the thoughts belong to Paul. But the difference of style between it and other Epistles is no greater than we find in the works of other authors at different periods of their lives, or than we daily observe in the writings and speeches of living men who deal with different topics in varying moods. (Archdeacon Farrar.)

V. Its relation to the other epistles.--

1. To the other Epistles in general. Each of Paul’s greater Epistles has its one salient thought. In that to the Romans it is justification by faith; in Ephesians it is the mystical union of Christ and His Church; in Philippians it is the joy of Christian progress; in this Epistle it is the dignity and sole sufficiency of Jesus Christ as the Mediator and Head of all creation and of the Church. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)

2. To the Epistle to the Ephesians. It is in exact psychological accordance with the peculiarities of St. Paul’s mind and style that, if, after writing a letter which was evoked by peculiar circumstances, and led to the development of particular truths, he utilized the opportunity of its despatch to send another letter, which had no such immediate object, the tones of the first letter would still vibrate in the second. When he had discharged his immediate duty to the Church of Colossae, the topics dwelt upon in writing to the neighbouring Churches would be sure to bear a close resemblance to those which had most recently been occupying his thoughts. Even apart from special information St. Paul may have seen the desirability of warning Ephesus and its dependencies against a peril which was infusing its subtle presence within so short a distance from them; and it was then natural that his language to them should be marked by the very differences which separate the Epistle to the Colossians from that to the Ephesians. The former is specific, concrete, and polemical; the latter is abstract, didactic, general. The same words and phrases predominate in both; hut the resemblances are far more marked and numerous in the practical exhortations than in the doctrinal statements. In the Epistle to the Colossians he is primarily occupied with the refutation of an error; in that to the Ephesians he is absorbed in the rapturous development of an exalted truth. The main theme of the Colossians is the Person of Christ; that of the Ephesians is the life of Christ manifested in the living energy of His Church (Colossians 2:19; Ephesians 4:16)
. In the former Christ is the “Plentitude”--the synthesis and totality of every attribute of God. In the latter, the ideal Church, as the body of Christ, is the Plentitude, the recipient of all the fulness of Him who filled all things with all. Christ’s Person is most prominent in the Colossians; Christ’s body in the Ephesians. (
Archdeacon Farrar.)

The Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians deal with the same lines of truth; they differ only in the method of treatment. That to the Ephesians is devotional and expository; that to the Colossians is polemical. In the Colossians the dignity of Christ’s Person is put forward most explicitly as against the speculations of a Judaizing theosophy which degraded Christ to the rank of an archangel, which recommended as a substitute for Christ’s redemptive work ascetic observances, grounded on a trust in the cleansing and hallowing properties and powers of discipline. In the Epistle to the Ephesians our Lord’s personal dignity is asserted more indirectly. It is implied in His reconciliation of Jews and heathens to each other and to God, and still more in its relation to the predestination of the saints. In both Epistles we encounter two prominent lines of thought, each in a high degree pointing to Christ’s Divine dignity. The first, the absolute character of the Christian faith as contrasted with the relative character of heathenism and Judaism; the second, the recreative power of the grace of Christ. In both Epistles the Church is considered as a vast spiritual society (Colossians 1:5-6)
which, besides embracing as its heritage all the races of the world, pierces the veil of the unseen, and includes the families of heaven (
Ephesians 3:15) in its majestic compass. Of this society Christ is the Head (Ephesians 1:22-23). He is the predestined point of unity to which earth and heaven, Jew and Gentile, meet and are one (Ephesians 1:10). His death is the triumph of peace in the spiritual world. Peace with God is secured through the taking away of the law of condemnation by the Cross (Colossians 2:14-15). Peace among men is secured because the Cross is the centre of the regenerated world as of the moral universe (Colossians 1:20-21). (Canon Liddon.)

VI. Its contents.--The following is an analysis of the Epistle.

I. Introductory.

1. Opening salutation (Colossians 1:1-2)

2. Thanksgiving for the progress of the Colossians hitherto (Colossians 1:3-8).

3. Prayer for their future advancement in knowledge and well doing through Christ (Colossians 1:9-13). (This leads the apostle to speak of Christ as the only path of progress.)

II. Doctrinal The Person and work of Christ.

1. Through the Son we have our redemption (Colossians 1:13-14).

2. The pre-eminence of the Son.

3. The work of the Son--reconciliation.

III. Polemical. Warning against errors.

1. The Colossians charged to abide in the truth of the Gospel as they received it at first, and not to be led astray by a strange philosophy which the new teachers offer (Colossians 2:4-8). (In the passage which follows (Colossians 2:9-23) it will be observed how St. Paul vibrates between the theological and practical bearings of the truth.)

2. The truth stated.

(a) The ple?roma dwells wholly in Christ and is communicated through Him (Colossians 2:9-10).

(b) The true circumcision is a spiritual circumcision (Colossians 2:11-12).

(a) annulled the law of ordinances (Colossians 2:14).

(b) Triumphed over all spiritual agencies, however powerful (Colossians 2:15).

3. Obligations following thereupon.

(a) either submit to ritual prohibitions (Colossians 2:16-17); or,

(b) substitute the worship of inferior beings for allegiance to the Head (Colossians 2:18-19).

(a) They have died with Christ; and with Him they have died to their old life, to worldly ordinances (Colossians 2:20-23).

(b) They have risen with Christ; and with Him they have risen to a new life, to heavenly principles (3:1-4).

IV. Hortatory. Practical application of this death and resurrection.

1. Comprehensive rules.

2. Special precepts.

V. Personal.

1. Explanations relating to the letter itself (Colossians 4:7-9).

2. Salutations from divers persons (10-14).

3. Salutations to divers persons. A message relating to Laodicea (15-17).

4. Farewell (18). (Bishop Lightfoot.)

VII. Its usefulness in relation to error in all ages. The so-called “Gnosticism” with which this Epistle deals is nothing more than a form of error--a phase of the crafty working of systematic deception--which is common to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual aberrations of all ages and countries. It is found in the Zend Avesta, in Philo, in Neoplatonism, in the Kabbala, in Valentinus. Abject sacerdotalism, superstitious ritual, extravagant asceticism, the faithlessness which leads men to abandon the privilege of immediate access to God, and to thrust between the soul and its One Mediator all sorts of human and celestial mediators; the ambition which builds upon the unmanly timidity of its votaries its own secure and tyrranous exaltation; the substitution of an easy externalism for the religion of the heart; the fancy that God cares for such barren self-denials as neither deepen our own spirituality nor benefit our neighbour; the elaboration of unreasonable systems which give the pompous name of Theology to vain and verbal speculations drawn by elaborate and untenable inferences from isolated expressions of which the antinomies are unfathomable, and of which the true exegetic history is deliberately ignored; the oscillating reactions which lead in the same sect, and in even the same individual to the opposite extremes of rigid scrupulosity and antinomian license--these are the germs not of one but of all the heresies; these are more or less the elements of nearly every false religion. The ponderous technicalities of the systematizer; the interested self-assertions of the priest; the dreamy speculations of the mystic; the Pharisaic conceit of the externalist; the polemical shibboleths of the sectarian; the spiritual pride and narrow one-sidedness of the self-tormentor; the ruinous identification of that saving faith which is a union with Christ and a participation of His life with the theoretic acceptance of a number of formulae--all these elements have, from the earliest dawn of Christianity, mingled in the tainted stream of heresy their elements of ignorance, self-interest, and error. In their dark features we detect a common resemblance. There was Gnosticism in the days of Paul as there is Gnosticism now, though neither then not now is it recognized under that specific name. (Archdeacon Farrar.)