Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome (4:18). A repeated theme throughout this letter is the fullness of Christ and how Christ’s fullness leads to the filling and perfection of the saints.
Structure of New Testament Letters
Knowing the form of a typical letter will help us find the key themes and key purpose for the writing of the book. The form of a first century letter had this look typically:
- Author and rank
- Body of letter
Let us examine Paul’s letter looking for these elements to determine the overall message of the letter.
Structure of Colossians
This letter to the Colossians was written by Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, along with Timothy. In verse 2, the recipients of this letter are the saints and faithful brothers in Christ who are in Colosse. Paul also gives the standard Hebrew and Greek salutation as he has done in all his letters, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father.”
Thanksgiving is the next section commonly found in a first century letter. Paul’s thanksgiving section is found in verses 3-14 of the first chapter. Paul tells the Christians in Colosse that he always prays for them because of their faith in Christ and love for the saints. Paul goes on to describe how the gospel had been preached through the whole world. In verse 9 Paul returns to telling the Colossians that he and Timothy have not ceased praying for them. Paul desires the Colossians to be filled with the knowledge of his will and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.
Verse 15 is the key statement of the book which Paul will discuss in this letter. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” The Greek word for “image” is eikon, which is where we get our English word “icon.” Christ is the visible representation of the invisible God. Thus, the NLT translates, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.” To be the firstborn of creation is to declare the supremacy of Christ above all created things. The rank and honor of Christ is far above that of the created world. This thesis leads Paul to give a threefold description about Christ, the fullness of God.
Christ, the Fullness of God in Creation (1:15-17)
Paul describes what he means in speaking about Christ as “the firstborn of all creation.” In verse 16 Paul says that by Christ all things were created, whether in heaven or earth, whether visible or invisible, whether thrones or rulers. Whatever one thinks of, Christ created it for himself. Christ is before all things and through him all things hold together. All of these descriptions are bound up in the phrase “firstborn of all creation.” Christ created all things, all created things are for him, and all things exist because of Christ.
Christ, the Fullness of God in Redemption (1:18-23)
Paul goes on to describe Christ as the head of the body. Christ has shown supremacy and power over death which brought about reconciliation of all things. Formerly we were alienated from God and stood in hostility toward God. But through Christ’s blood on the cross we have been reconciled and can be presented before God holy, blameless, and above reproach. This reconciliation depends upon each of us continuing to stand firm in the faith, never shifting from the message of Christ.
Christ, the Fullness of God in the Body (1:24-2:5)
Paul describes his cause for rejoicing in his sufferings. Paul’s sufferings are for the filling up of the body. Paul has sacrificed his life to be a servant of God and his work is to build up the body of Christ. Paul states in verse 28-29, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” In many ways this simply summarizes Paul’s work and purpose. Paul continues in chapter 2 declaring that they have struggled for the sake of the Colossians so that their hearts may be encouraged and so that they may understand God’s mystery.
Walk Worthy (2:6-23)
- Watch that no one takes you captive. In verse 6 Paul declares that the Colossians are to walk in Christ. This was Paul’s prayer for the Colossians in 1:10, that they walk worthy of the Lord. Paul’s first concern for the Colossians to walk worthy is that they are not taken captive by philosophy and empty deceit. The word translated “philosophy” literally means “the love of wisdom.” It seems we are reading about the early problems of what would grow to become Gnosticism. These people desired “higher knowledge” or “higher wisdom” that others could not attain. Paul says that they should not be led astray by these people who have this love for wisdom. Paul argues that the fullness and knowledge of God comes through the cross and not through this philosophical teaching. Paul says how they can be filled with this knowledge of God—through baptism which is our faith in God who powerfully cuts off the sins of the flesh (2:9-12).
- Do not be judged by rituals.The second problem Paul warns about is the rituals of Gnosticism. It sounds like this form of Gnosticism that is present in Colosse was a blend of Judaism with asceticism. Paul says they should not have judgment passed upon them in regards to food, drink, and festivals. These elements contained under the old covenant were simply shadows of what was to come through Christ, the fullness of all things. I do not think it is correct to say that these are Judaizers or legalists, as many commentators declare. The old covenant never gave instructions for angel worship, visions, or severe treatment of the body. As I already asserted, it seems these Christians have taken some elements of Judaism and mixed it with the new, popular teaching of Gnosticism. Paul says that the fullness and knowledge of God comes by holding fast to the Head, which is Christ (2:19). Therefore, the Colossians are not follow the human teachings but hold fast to the teachings of the apostles.
Since You Are Raised With Christ (3:1-4:6)
In chapter 3 Paul teaches that since he have been raised with Christ through baptism (2:12), we are to set our minds on things that are above, where Christ is, the fullness of all things. The Christian is not to have his mind set on the things of this world. The reason is that we are to be dead to world and alive with Christ in God. This leads Paul to give many instructions on Christian living.
- Put to death the earthly, fleshly life. Paul says we are to put to death sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness. The wrath of God comes against these activities and these things are to be part of the past life, but not the life hidden with Christ. Further, anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk, and lying are to be put away. We are to be new creatures living new lives and cannot be the old self that engaged in these practices.
- Put on Christ.In verse 12 Paul describes what we are supposed to be doing as God’s chosen people. We are to be holy, compassionate, kind, humble, meek, patient, forbearing, and forgiving. These characteristics identify us as Christians. The word of Christ is to dwell in us richly, through the scriptures, through teaching one another, and through singing to one another. Everything we do is to be by the authority of Christ, because he is the fullness of all things.
Paul continues to describe our Christian walk in very detailed terms. Wives are to be submissive. Husbands are to be loving and not bitter. Children are to be obedient. Fathers are not to provoke. Slaves are to obey their masters out of fear for the Lord. In verses 23-24 Paul commands, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (NIV). We are to do our work with all of our heart because we are working for the Lord. Masters are to treat their servants well because we all have the true Master in heaven.
Paul continues with more instructions. The Christian is to continue steadfastly in prayer with thanksgiving. Prayer is to be the cloak of the Christian, yet how often we neglect prayer! Further, Paul says that we are to conduct ourselves in a proper manner toward the outsider, making the best use of our time. Our actions are looked upon by those who are on the outside so we must be watchful how we act. We also must be watchful in what we say. Paul commands us to have our speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt. All of these things are what you and I are commanded to do if we are going to say that we have been raised with Christ. Baptism is only the first step as we put our faith in God to take away our sins. But there is so much more that we are called to do if we are going to be raised with Christ. We must put to death the sins of the flesh and the worldly lifestyle. Instead, we are to put on the characteristics of Christ, not merely in worship to God, but in our daily activities and decisions. Everything we do should reflect the fullness of God in Christ.
Paul begins to close his letter to the Colossians in verses 7-9 of chapter 4. Tychicus, a servant and messenger of Paul, is going to come to them and reveal more about Paul’s circumstances. Onesimus is also coming who will tell them of everything that has taken place.
As is typical in first century letters, Paul ends the letter with a number of greetings to and from various people. Aristarchus and Mark greet the Colossian Christians, as well as Justus. Epaphras also sends his greetings. Luke and Demas also say hello to the people of Colosse. Paul sends greetings to the brethren at Laodicea and the church that is in Nympha’s house. After this letter has been read, Paul instructs that this letter be circulated to the church in Laodicea and that they read the letter that Laodicea had received. Final instructions are given to Archippus, which are words of encouragement for his to continue his ministry.
As we have noted in the past, authors regularly had scribes to pen their letters and Paul was no different. The reason was that the author could hear how the letter would sound as it would be read to its audience. At the end of the letter, Paul takes the pen from the scribe and leaves his signature and greeting with a call that he be remembered while imprisoned. Thus ends Paul’s letter to the Colossians, calling upon them to see Christ as the fullness of all things. There is no need for anything else when one has Christ.