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by Daniel Whedon
THE authorship of the Epistle to the Colossians was in the early Church universally ascribed to St. Paul, and only at a very recent day has it been questioned. It is directly quoted, with the use of his name as the author, by Irenaeus, Clemens Alexandrinus, Tertullian, and Origen, and it is found in the Canon of Muratori, which dates about A.D. 160. Besides this external evidence, the internal is ample. The name of Paul occurs in it three times, Colossians 1:1; Colossians 1:28; Colossians 4:18; it refers to his imprisonment in Colossians 4:3; Colossians 4:10; Colossians 4:18; and it freely mentions persons, known to be his friends, as with him, who are named in the same relation in the Epistle to Philemon, written at the same time. Notwithstanding, Schrader, followed by Meyerhoff and Baur, have doubted his authorship, the latter, indeed, wholly rejecting it. They think they find in it ideas and expressions belonging to the Gnosticism and Montanism of later times, and, therefore, infer that it belongs to an age subsequent to that of Paul, and that it was written by another hand. Meyerhoff lays great stress on its poverty of thought, differing in this respect from the early Church, and also thinks its doctrinal part exceedingly confused in its logic, which only shows his inability or failure to comprehend its method. The truth is, the heresies named were in their incipiency at the date of this epistle; and while they had not taken the definite form which they afterward assumed, the system attacked, so far as it had become a system, presented enough of the elements which they afterward developed to account for the language of Paul. Bishop Ellicott well remarks: “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 bewray such a complete want of critical perception, that we can scarcely wonder that such views have been both very generally and summarily rejected.”
The Colossian Church was composed mainly of Gentiles, as the mode of address in Colossians 2:18, shows. Whether it was founded by St. Paul is a disputed question. His third missionary journey carried him through Phrygia to Ephesus, but, probably, far to the north of Colosse. There is no direct evidence of a visit to that city. The epistle itself not only makes no mention of a former acquaintance with the Church, which is unaccountable if he were its founder, but in Colossians 2:1, he plainly classes the Colossians with the Laodiceans and others who, he says, “have not seen my face in the flesh.” In Colossians 1:3-7, moreover, it is plainly implied that his knowledge of them was gained by report. That he intended, after his release, to visit them, is seen in his request to Philemon (verse 22) to prepare him a “lodging.” The acquaintance with Epaphras and Philemon may be explained by supposing them to have visited Ephesus for purposes of their own during the apostle’s three years’ ministry there, listened to his preaching, and embraced the Gospel, which would at once bring them all into a common fellowship. From Ephesus as a centre went forth, in the persons of new converts, an evangelizing power to Colosse, Laodicea, Hierapolis, and other places, resulting in Christian Churches. We thus suppose Epaphras to have been the founder of the Colossian Church. The terms in which he is spoken of in Colossians 1:7, show that they had “learned” the Gospel from him, whose authority, and correctness in teaching, the apostle most emphatically confirms. As they were mostly Gentiles, they stood in a peculiar relation to St. Paul as their apostle, which accounts for the affectionate freedom of his address.
The occasion of the epistle is to be ascertained from the epistle itself. Moved by love for his revered friend, Epaphras had joined the apostle at Rome, to minister to his comfort and share in his imprisonment. From Epaphras’s report of the spiritual condition of the Church, Paul learned the existence of attempts to introduce a system of erroneous doctrine which threatened its integrity and very life. Its features, as may be gathered from the text, were threefold. First, the reference to “circumcision,” “new moon,” etc., (Colossians 2:11; Colossians 2:16,) shows a Jewish, legalizing element, though not the Judaizing of the Epistle to the Galatians. Second, a theosophy and angelology, which reckoned Christ as one of a host of spiritual intelligences, proposed to place them as mediators on a level with him, as equally worthy of worship and trust. It thus degraded him from his Headship of the Church and his glory as the Son of God, Creator, and only Redeemer. Third, it cultivated a severe asceticism of life, affecting contempt of the body, and enjoining mortification of the flesh in a way of ritualistic observance. These incongruous elements, thus brought together, were dignified with the lofty and pretentious title of “THE PHILOSOPHY.” The attempts thus far made to trace it to a single source have proved abortive. Phrygia, noted for the fanatical worship of Cybele, and a wild reverence for great spiritual powers, was a border-land where Orientalism and Hellenism, Judaism and Christianity, met. The very atmosphere was charged with speculation, and out of the thoughts floating therein a party, or, more likely, a single individual, undertook the framing of a system. Meyer rightly calls it “Judaistico Oriental.” It was nascent Gnosticism with, perhaps, an element local as yet at Colosse. Note on 2 Thessalonians 2:7. Out of what we here find in incipiency and crudeness, afterward grew grave heresies which fill a large space in the history of the Church. To meet and refute these errors at an early stage is the apostle’s design in writing. He accomplishes his purpose by a rigidly logical argument in establishment of the Christian doctrine, and then by it sharply tests the new philosophy. The epistle then becomes, in antagonism to this philosophy, a profound treatise on the Person and Work of Christ, as the supreme Lord of heaven and earth, and the perfect Redeemer of the world.
This epistle was written about the same time with that to the Ephesians, and forwarded by the same hands. As to priority of writing, commentators are greatly divided in opinion, the same grounds leading different writers to opposite conclusions. It appears to us more natural that the special and controversial should precede the peculiarly dogmatic. As to their marked resemblance, however, there is entire agreement. The subject in both is Christ, but in different aspects and relations: in Ephesians it is Christ ascended, glorified, and as related to the Church; in Colossians, Christ prehistoric, glorified, and as related to redemption. As might be expected, the parallels, often identical in words, are numerous, the same truth not unfrequently appearing in new and equally beautiful relations. Yet no allusion to the peculiar errors rebuked in the one is found in the other. In style and diction they widely differ. In the Epistle to the Colossians no less than thirty-five words occur which are not found elsewhere in the New Testament, twenty of which are in the second chapter. They are to be explained partly by the subject, and partly by the labored effort after the full and exact accuracy of expression which would at once set forth the entire truth and overwhelm the opposing error.
The proper date of the epistle is in A.D. 62, in the earlier part of the imprisonment, during the enjoyment of the comparative freedom of which he was deprived after the death of Burrus. As to the place of writing, we fix it at Rome, adhering to the common view as alone agreeing with the circumstances of the case.
PLAN OF THE EPISTLE.
INTRODUCTION Colossians 1:1-14
I. THE GLORIOUS PERSON AND REDEMPTIVE WORK OF CHRIST Colossians 1:15 to Colossians 2:7
1. His exalted dignity Colossians 1:15-18
a. His relation to God Colossians 1:15
b. His relation to the universeColossians 1:16-17; Colossians 1:16-17
c. His relation to the ChurchColossians 1:18; Colossians 1:18
2. Divine plan of universal reconciliation through Christ Colossians 1:19-20
3. Its realization in the experience of the Colossians Colossians 1:21-23
4. Paul’s commission, sufferings, and labors Colossians 1:24-29
5. His solicitude for their unity and stability Colossians 2:1-5
a. Conclusion based upon their experience Colossians 2:6-7
II. THE PROPOSED “PHILOSOPHY” CONSIDERED Colossians 2:8-23
1. Its characteristics Colossians 2:8
2. Transcended by Christ Colossians 2:9-10
3. The advantage offered already obtained in him Colossians 2:11-13
4. The legalism sought to be imposed abolished Colossians 2:14
5. The angels themselves subjected to Christ Colossians 2:15
6. Deductions from the foregoing Colossians 2:16-23
a. Caution against legal observances Colossians 2:16-17
b. Caution against angel-worship Colossians 2:18-19
c. Caution against asceticismColossians 2:20-23; Colossians 2:20-23
III. ETHICAL COUNSELS Colossians 3:1 to Colossians 4:6
1. The pursuit of heavenly things based on union with the risen Christ Colossians 3:1-4
2. General Christian duties thence resultingColossians 3:5-17; Colossians 3:5-17
a. Avoidance of evil conduct and sinful tempers Colossians 3:5-11
b. Duty in culture and exercise of Christian gracesColossians 3:12-14; Colossians 3:12-14
c. Unity and mutual helpfulnessColossians 3:15-17; Colossians 3:15-17
3. Special social duties Colossians 3:18 to Colossians 4:1
a. Wives and husbandsColossians 3:18-19; Colossians 3:18-19
b. Children and parents Colossians 3:20-21
c. Servants and masters Colossians 3:22 toColossians 4:1; Colossians 4:1
4. Duty of prayer Colossians 4:2-4
5. Intercourse with persons outside the Church Colossians 4:5-6
IV. CONCLUSION Colossians 4:7-18
1. Personal communications Colossians 4:7-14
2. Salutations and closing words Colossians 4:15-18
the Week of Proper 12 / Ordinary 17