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Colossians and Philemon: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament

Colossians and Philemon: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament

by David W. Pao, Clinton E. Arnold (Editor)

This series is designed for those who know biblical languages. It is written primarily for the pastor and Bible teacher, not for the scholar. That is, the aim is not to review and offer a critique of every possible interpretation that has ever been given to a passage, but to exegete each passage of Scripture succinctly in its grammatical and historical context.


This series is designed for those who know biblical languages. It is written primarily for the pastor and Bible teacher, not for the scholar. That is, the aim is not to review and offer a critique of every possible interpretation that has ever been given to a passage, but to exegete each passage of Scripture succinctly in its grammatical and historical context. Each passage is interpreted in the light of its biblical setting, with a view to grammatical detail, literary context, flow of biblical argument, and historical setting. While the focus will not be on application, it is expected that the authors will offer suggestions as to the direction in which application can flow.

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Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament Series
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Colossians and Philemon

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament


Copyright © 2012 David W. Pao
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-24395-3

Chapter One

Colossians 1:1–8

Literary Context

As in a number of Paul's earlier letters, Colossians begins with the identification of its author, coauthor, recipients, and a brief greeting (1:1–2). This introduction not only highlights Paul's authority as an apostle of Christ Jesus; it also points to the public nature of the letter from two leaders to the believers in the church at Colossae. The references to Christ Jesus and God's will also locate the present concerns within the wider salvation-historical plan of God.

It has often been claimed that Paul follows typical Hellenistic epistolary practice in his inclusion of an opening thanksgiving section (1:3–8) in many of his letters, and these sections focus on the epistolary situation: "to introduce the main theme of the letter." It is true that such sections provide a preview of the theological emphases of these letters. In the case of Colossians, this one highlights important themes such as "faith in Christ Jesus" (v. 4), "hope stored up ... in heaven" (v. 5), "the gospel" (v. 5), and "love" (v. 8).

It is unclear, however, if such a function is dictated by the convention of the epistolary form. Subsequent studies on the Hellenistic epistolary form have questioned the existence of a typical "thanksgiving section" in Hellenistic papyrus letters. While "health wishes" are often found, the lack of the explicit note of "thanksgiving" in most of these letters argues against seeing thanksgiving in a formulaic or conventional way. An assumption that Paul is here simply following contemporary epistolary form distracts the readers from noticing the significance of the theme of thanksgiving throughout this letter (cf. 1:12; 2:6–7; 3:15–17; 4:2).

This thanksgiving section (1:3–8) is closely related to the prayer report that follows (1:9–14). Both are indirect speeches addressed to God, and in both one finds the introduction to significant themes throughout the rest of this letter. Moreover, both sections point to the acts of God among his people. The focus of the two sections is slightly different, however. The thanksgiving section, comprised of one long sentence, focuses on the power of the gospel among the believers in Colossae, while the prayer report highlights the need to act in a way consistent with the knowledge that the gospel has imparted. The similarities in form and content between the two sections have led some to conclude that they should be considered one section. The parallel ideas between the two sections do, however, point to the existence of two independent, though related, semantic units (see Literary Context on 1:9–14 for more on the prayer report).

Main Idea

After the opening greetings, the thanksgiving section highlights the centrality of the gospel of Christ Jesus. This gospel points to the hope stored up in heaven, and such hope enables the believers to express their faith in Christ and their love for others.


Paul begins not only by identifying himself as an "apostle" (v. 1b), but also by clarifying the source of his calling (v. 1c). The prepositional phrase "by the will of God" presupposes a verbal idea embedded in the title "apostle" (i.e., "to send, to choose"). Together with Timothy (v. 1d), Paul addresses the believers in Colossae. As in his self-identification, Paul also identifies those in Colossae by means of their relationship with Christ (v. 2b).

The thanksgiving prayer is addressed to "God the Father" (v. 3a-b), but the christological focus in this prayer cannot be missed (cf. vv. 3d, 4a, 7c). The basis of the prayer, as expressed by the causal participle "because we have heard" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), points to the "love" and "faith" manifested in the lives of the believers in Colossae. Unlike elsewhere in Paul where the triad of "love," "faith," and "hope" is expressed in parallel terms (cf. 1 Cor 13:13), here the "hope" that is stored up for the saints in heaven (v. 5a) forms the basis of the "love" and "faith" manifested in the lives of the believers. This paves the way for the later emphasis on the eschatological hope of believers (1:23, 27; cf. 3:4).

In explaining the "hope," Paul introduces the significance and power of the "gospel" (v. 5b). Though tucked in a series of subordinate clauses, the "gospel" becomes the focus for the rest of this thanksgiving section. This "gospel" is portrayed as an active and powerful agent that has "come" to the Colossians (v. 6a), and it is "bearing fruit and growing" among the Colossians (v. 6c) as it is elsewhere in the world (v. 6b). The concluding note introduces Epaphras, the one who brought the gospel to those in Colossae (v. 7) and who had reported to Paul and his coworkers the situation in the church at Colossae (v. 8).

Explanation of the Text

1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God, and Timothy, our brother ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Paul begins this letter by identifying himself and his coauthor. The name "Paul" is likely his Hellenistic cognomen, one that is known among the Gentile churches. From Acts, one also learns of his Jewish name, Saul (e.g., Acts 7:58; 8:1; 9:1; 11:25). While an "apostle" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) can be merely a "messenger" (2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25), in letter openings (Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:1; 1 Tim 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Titus 1:1) and elsewhere when Paul refers to himself (Rom 11:13; 1 Cor 9:1–2; 15:9; 1 Tim 2:7), this word functions as a title that points to his special position in the plan of God. By identifying himself as an "apostle," Paul is not simply explaining his mission as an "apostle to the Gentiles" (Rom 11:13; Gal 2:8); he is also drawing attention to his special status as one who speaks for Christ. This also reflects the Greco-Roman context in which envoys represent and carry the authority of the one who sent them. The following phrase, "of Christ Jesus," points to the authority of the risen Lord, and Paul's unique role is also highlighted in a later section of this letter (1:24–2:5).

The genitival construction "of Christ Jesus" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is best taken as a genitive of relationship. This phrase is especially significant in this letter where the supremacy of Christ is the foundation of Paul's response to those who distract the Colossians from the true gospel. The word order "Christ Jesus," instead of " Jesus Christ," seems of no significant theological value since in v. 3 and in the openings of some of his letters (Gal 1:1; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:1) Paul uses " Jesus Christ" instead. "By the will of God" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) presupposes a verbal idea behind the previous semantic unit. Embedded in the noun "apostle" is the idea of "sending" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and Paul explicitly noted in 1 Cor 1:17 that Christ "sent" him to preach the gospel. Paul's identity as an apostle cannot be separated from his Damascus experience when he became Christ's "chosen instrument" in the gospel ministry (Acts 9:15; cf. 22:14–15; 26:17–18). In this context, this phrase highlights God's role behind Paul's ministry, and thus authenticates the gospel he preaches. "Timothy" accompanied Paul in his missionary journeys (cf. Acts 16:1–3; 17:14; 18:5; 19:22), and he was likely converted by Paul (cf. 1 Tim 1:2). His name also appears in the introductory salutations of 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Such inclusion can be explained in two ways. First, because he is mentioned in three of Paul's four "prison letters," he was likely present with Paul during his Roman imprisonment. Second, in the case of Colossians, Paul's own signature at the end of this letter (4:18) may imply that he employs a secretary for the writing of the rest of the letter. If so, Timothy may have served as his secretary. This is further supported by the fact that Timothy has had no prior contact with the church at Colossae. His appearance in this salutation therefore points to his specific role in the composition of the letter. The translation "our brother" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) takes the article ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) as implying the first person plural pronoun, "our." Unlike 1 Thess 3:2, where Timothy is explicitly called "our brother" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), the absence of the personal pronoun here may point to the use of the term "brother" in an absolute sense as a title, "the brother." This would explain the absence of the pronoun whenever a cosender is called a "brother" in salutations of Pauline letters. "Brother," then, may function as a title as "apostle" does.

1:2 To the saints at Colossae, the faithful brothers in Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Paul locates his audience in their geographical and theological locations. We begin by exploring the relationship between "saints" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and "faithful" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). At issue is whether [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] should be rendered simply as an adjectival modifier ("holy") or as a substantive adjective ("saints"). Grammatically, it may appear to be more natural to take both words as adjectival modifiers with "brothers" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]): "to the holy and faithful brothers." The single article ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) may point to the two adjectives as modifying a single entity, and elsewhere in Colossians Paul exhorts the Colossians to be "holy" (1:22; 3:12). Nevertheless, in light of the use of this term in other Pauline salutations (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1), it seems best to take this adjective in a substantive sense: "To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters" (NRSV; cf. NET, NLT, TNIV). This substantival sense is supported by a number of other passages in Colossians (1:4, 12, 26). Even in 3:12, where the Colossians are described as "holy" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), this adjective is used to explain their status as the "elect of God" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), a phrase that explains what it means to be "saints" in the traditions of Israel (cf. Exod 22:30 LXX). Taking the word in a substantival sense also means that the conjunction ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) that connects the two parts should be taken epexegetically: "To the saints at Colossae, [that is,] the faithful brothers in Christ."

To call the believers in Colossae "saints" is to remind them of their status as those who have been transferred to the "kingdom of his beloved Son" (1:13). This paves the way for Paul's argument that additional ascetic practices will not contribute to their status in the presence of God (2:16–23). To call them "faithful" also reminds them to be faithful to the gospel they have received (2:6). In this letter, Paul will mention three individuals as models of "faithful" brothers: Epaphras, Tychicus, and Onesimus (1:7; 4:7, 9).

The parallel phrases "at Colossae ... in Christ" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) pave the way for the theological topography constructed in the body of Paul's argument. Historically and geographically, the recipients are "at Colossae," which Herodotus claimed to be "a great city in Phrygia" (Hist. 7.30.1) in the fifth century BC. In the Roman imperial period, however, its status and significance are unclear. A passage from Strabo (Georg. 12.8.13) seems to group Colossae with other neighboring small cities like Aphrodisias, although a lacuna in the text questions the certainty of this reading. It is clear, however, that Colossae could no longer compete with Laodicea, a major city of the Lycus Valley eleven miles NW of it. This also explains the references to Laodicea in this letter (2:1; 4:13, 15, 16). There is also evidence of the relative inferior status of Colossae even when compared to Aphrodisias, a city that boasted a significant imperial cult dedicated "To Aphrodite, the Divine Augustus and the People." Equally important is Paul's identification of the Colossians as being "in Christ." First, while "saints" points to God's elect and "brothers" to the new identity within the family of God, "in Christ" highlights the new identity of this people of God under the lordship of Christ. No longer are God's people defined by their blood relationship with their own kin; their identity is now rooted in Christ. Second, the "in Christ" formula paves the way for Paul's discussion of the sufficiency of the work of Christ (cf. 1:27–28). The only criterion through which one's spiritual status can be measured is Christ and Christ alone. Third, the parallel construction "at Colossae" and "in Christ" points further to the spatial significance of the "in Christ" formula. In 3:1–4, the recipients are reminded that they have been raised with Christ, the one "seated at the right hand of God" (3:1). Seeking "the things above," (3:1) therefore, is not to be understood as the search for additional fulfillment through spiritual exercises; rather, it is to focus on Christ, the one who has accomplished all. As in Paul's other letters, his greeting is adapted from contemporary Hellenistic epistolary practices. The implied verb "may ... be" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is often missing in this formulaic greeting, as it is often so in Hellenistic letters. A typical greeting in Hellenistic letters contains a word of greeting and a health wish, with or without the note of prayer. Paul here substitutes the typical Greek word for "greetings" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) with "grace" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), a significant theological term in his own writings. Jewish letters often contain a prayer of peace as well, and "peace" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) here reflects such a practice. For Paul, "grace" and "peace" are not merely subjective experiences of kindness and tranquility; rather, they point to the powerful salvific work of God through Christ, (e.g., Rom 3:24; 5:17) and the reconciliation that is already promised for the eschatological era (e.g., Rom 5:1; Eph 2:14–18; cf. Isa 52:7; 57:2). Here, Paul again reminds his audience of the foundational significance of the gospel.

The absence of the expected "and our Lord Jesus Christ" has prompted some early scribes to insert this phrase into the text. Most commentators find this omission puzzling, although some have suggested that Paul is reserving this phrase for the next verse. The parallel in 1 Thess 1:1 may further support this reading when Paul's greeting is simply "Grace and peace to you," whereas "God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" already appeared in the previous clause when describing the church of the Thessalonians.

1:3 We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Paul now begins a lengthy thanksgiving section (vv. 3–8). The principal verb "we give thanks" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is following by a participle ("when we pray," [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The plural "we" could be an "epistolary plural," where the verb refers to Paul himself,26 but the switch back to the singular in 1:23 suggests this is not the case. Most commentators see both Paul and Timothy as the subject of this verb, but it remains puzzling as to why the singular form of the verb is used elsewhere, even when Timothy (among others) is listed as a cosender of the letter (cf. 1 Cor 1:1, 4; Phil 1:1, 3; Phlm 1, 4). With this plural verb, it is at least possible that Paul intends to include his other coworkers as well as witnesses to the work of God among the believers in Colossae. The reference to the work of the gospel in "the whole world" (v. 6) may lend credence to this reading.

"Always" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) can modify either "we ... give thanks" or "when we pray." In light of other Pauline introductory thanksgivings (1 Cor 1:4; 1 Thess 1:2; 2 Thess 1:3; Phlm 4; cf. 2 Thess 2:13), it seems likely that it modifies the former. In Col 3:17, Paul will explain what it means to give thanks to God always, and this in turn supports our reading here: "whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." That this phrase points to the meaning of "always give thanks" is confirmed by the parallel in Eph 5:20: "always [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."


Excerpted from Colossians and Philemon Copyright © 2012 by David W. Pao . Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David W. Pao (PhD Harvard University) is Professor of New Testament and Chair of the New Testament Department at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His publications include Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus, Thanksgiving: An Investigation of a Pauline Theme, Early Christian Voices: In Texts, Traditions, and Symbols (coeditor), Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, and After Imperialism: Christian Identity in China and the Global Evangelical Movement (coeditor).

Clinton E. Arnold (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Dean and Professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology in LaMirada, California.

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