New Testament Introduction

Louis Berkhof

The Epistle to the Colossians


The Epistle to the Colossians may best be divided into two parts:

I. The Doctrinal Part, emphasizing the unique Significance of Christ, 1:1—2: 23. Paul begins the letter with the apostolic blessing, the usual thanksgiving and a prayer for his readers, 1:1-13. Then he describes the pre-eminence of Christ as the Head of both the natural and the spiritual creation, who has reconciled all things to God, 14-23, of which mystery the apostle himself was made a minister, 24-29. He warns his readers against the inroads of a false philosophy that dishonored Christ. Since the Colossians have all the fulness of the Godhead in their Lord and Saviour, are rooted in him, and have arisen with him to a new life, they should walk in him and avoid semi-Jewish practices and the worship of angels, 2:1-19. This was all the more necessary, because they had died with Christ to their old life and to the beggarly elements of the world, 20-23.

II. The Practical Part, containing divers Directions and Exhortations, 3: 1—4:18. Where believers have risen with Christ to newness of life, they must part with the vices of the old man and clothe themselves with Christian virtues, 3:1-17. Wives should submit themselves to their husbands and husbands should love their wives; children must obey their parents and parents must beware of discouraging their children; servants should obey their masters and these should give the servants their due, 18—4:1. The duty of prayer and thanksgiving is urged, and directions are given for the right behavior of believers toward the unconverted, 2-6. With a few personal notices, several greetings and a salutation the apostle closes his Epistle, 7-18.


1. On its formal side this Epistle differs from that to the Ephesians in its polemical character. It is not a general exposition of the truth that is in Christ Jesus, without reference to antagonistic principles, but a statement of it with a special view to the errors that were gradually creeping into the Colossian church, insidious errors of which the Cobssians, so it seems, little realized the danger. It is true that we find none of the fiery polemics of the Epistle to the Galatians here, nor any of the sharp invective of II Corinthians;—yet the controversial character of this letter is very evident.

2. On its material side it exhibits great affinity with the Epistle to the Ephesians. Hence the contention of the critics that the one is but a copy of the other. We should not infer from this, however, that the teaching of these Epistles is identical. While that contained in Ephesians is in the main Theological, that found in Colossians is primarily Christological, the summing up of all things in Christ, the Head. Essentially the Christology of this letter is in perfect harmony with that of previous Epistles, but there is a difference of emphasis. The writer here places prominently before his readers, not only the Soteriological, but also the Cosmical significance of Christ. He is the Head both of the Church and of the new creation. All things were created by him, and find the purpose of their existence in him.

3. In point of style and language too this Epistle shows great similarity to its twin-letter. Of the 155 verses in Ephesians 78 contain expressions that find parallels in Colossians. There are the same involved sentences of difficult interpretation, and also a great number of ἅπαξ λεγόμενα. The letter contains 34 words that are absent from all the other writings of Paul, 12 of which are found in other New Testament books, however, (cf. lists of these words in Alford and in Abbotts Comm.) Of these 34 words at least 18, and therefore more than half, are found in the second chapter. Owing to the polemical character of this letter the author is generally speaking in a more matter-of-fact manner than he is in Ephesians, and it is only, when he sets forth the majesty of Christ, that he soars to sublime heights. Comparing this Epistle with those to the Corinthians and the Philippians, Lightfoot says: “It is distinguished from them by a certain ruggedness of expression, a want of finish often bordering on obscurity.” Comm. p.123.


There are no good reasons to doubt the Pauline authorship of this Epistle. Marcion and the school of Valentinus recognized it as genuine. And the great witnesses of the end of the second century, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertuilian repeatedly quote it by name.

Moreover the internal evidence decidedly favors the authenticity of the letter. It claims to be written by the apostle in 1: 1; the line of thought developed in it is distinctly Pauline and is in striking harmony with that of the Epistle to the Ephesians; and if we do not first rule out several of the Pauline Epistles and then compare the style of this letter with those that remain, we may confidently assert that the style is Pauline. Moreover the persons named in 4:7-17 are all, with but a couple exceptions (viz. Jesus called Justus and Nymphas) known to have been companions or fellow-laborers of Paul.

Yet the Epistle did not go unchallenged. Mayerhoff began the attack on it is 1838, rejecting it, because its vocabulary, style and thought were not Pauline; it was so similar to Ephesians; and it contained references to the heresy of Cerinthus. The school of Baur and many other critics, such as Hoekstra, Straatman, Hausrath, Davidson, Schmiedel e. a., followed his lead and considered this Epistle as a second century production. Holtzmann, as we have already seen, found a genuine nucleus in it.

There are especially three objections that are urged against the Pauline authorship of this letter. (1) The style is not that of the apostle. The fact that the letter contains 34 ἅπαξ λεγόμενα that characteristically Pauline terms, such as δικαιοσύνη, σωτερία, αποκάλυψις and καταργεῖν are absent, while some of the particles often employed by the apostle, as γάρ, οὖν, διότι and ἅρα are rarely found; and that the construction is often very involved and characterized by a certain heaviness, is urged against its genuineness. (2) The error combated in this Epistle, it is said, shows clear traces of second century Gnosticism. These are found in the use of the terms σοφία, γνῶσις, 2 :3, μυστήριον, 1 :26, 27; 2 :2, πλήρωμα,1 :19, ἀιῶνες, 1 :26, etc.; in the series of angels named in 1: 16; and in the conception of Christ in 1: 15. It is held that they point to the Valentinian system. (3) Closely related to the preceding is the objection that the Christology of this Epistle is un-Pauline. Davidson regards this as the chief feature that points to the Gnostics, Introd. I p. 246, but it is also thought to conflict with the representation of Paul in his other writings, and to approach very closely the Johannine doctrine of the Logos. Christ is represented as the image of the invisible God, 1:15, the central Being of the universe, absolutely pre-eminent above all visible and invisible beings, 1: 16-18, the originator and the goal of creation, and the perfect Mediator, who reconciles not only sinners but all things in heaven and on earth to God, 1: 16-20.

In answer to the first objection we may say that the argument derived from the ἅπαξ λεγόμενα is irrelevant and would apply with equal force in the case of the Epistle to the Romans. From the fact that more than half of them are found in the second chapter it is quite evident that they are due to the special subject-matter of this letter. The difference between Colossians and some of the other Pauline writings also explains why the characteristically Pauline terms referred to above are absent from our Epistle. Had Paul used exactly the same words that he employs elsewhere, that would also, in all probability, have been proof positive for many critics that the letter was a forgery. Moreover it should not be regarded as very strange that a persons vocabulary changes somewhat in the course of time, especially not, when he is placed in an altogether different environment, as was the case with Paul. We fully agree with Dr. Salmon, when he says: “I cannot subscribe to the doctrine that a man, writing a new composition, must not, on pain of losing his identity, employ any word that he has not used in a former one.” Introd. p. 148.

As to the second objection we would reply that there is absolutely no proof that the Epistle presupposes second century Gnosticism. The Gnostics evidently did not regard it as a polemic directed against their tenets, for Marcion and the Valentinians made extensive use of it. Moreover some of the most important elements of Gnosticism, such as the creation of the world by a demiurge, ignorant of the supreme God or opposed to Him, are not referred to in the Epistle. An incipient Gnosticism there may have been in Paul’s time; but it is also possible that the error of the Colossian church is in no way to be identified with the Gnostic heresy. Present day scholarship strongly inclines to the view that it is not Gnosticism at all to which Paul refers in this letter.

And with respect to the third argument, we do not see why the further development of the Pauline Christology cannot have been the work of Paul himself. There is nothing in the Christology of this Epistle that conflicts with the recognized representation of Paul. We clearly find the essence of it in Rom. 8:19-22; I Cor. 8:6; II Cor. 4:4; Phil, 2:5-11. These passages prepare us for the statement of Paul regarding the Cosmical significance of Christ,. 1: 16,17. And the representation that all the forces of creation culminate in the glory of Christ does not necessarily run counter to Rom. 11: 36 and I Cor. 15 : 28, according to which all things exist to the praise of God, their Creator.


Colossae was one of the cities of the beautiful Lycus Valley in Phrygia, situated but a short distance from Laodicea and Hierapolis. Herodotus speaks of it as a great city, but it did not retain its magnitude until New Testament times, for Strabo only reckons it as a πόλισμα. We have no information respecting the founding of the Colossian church. From the Acts of the Apostles we learn that Paul passed through Phrygia twice, once at the start of his second, and again at the beginning of his third missionary journey, Acts 16: 6; 18: 23. But on the first of these journeys he remained well to the East of Western Phrygia, where Colossae was situated; and though on the second he may have gone into the Lycus Valley, he certainly did not find nor found the Colossian church there, since he himself says in Col. 2: 1 that the Colossians had not seen his face in the flesh. In all probability Paul’s prolonged residence at Ephesus and his preaching there for three years, so that “all those in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus,” Acts 19:10, was indirectly responsible for the founding of the churches in the Lycus Valley. The most plausible theory is that Epaphras was one of Paul’s Ephesian converts and became the founder of the Colossian church. This is favored by 1 :7, where the correct reading is καθὼς ἐμάθατε,and not καθὼς κὰι εμάθετε.

The church consisted, so it seems, of Gentile Christians, 1: 21, 27; 2: 11-13; the Epistle certainly does not contain a single hint that there were Jews among them. Yet they were clearly exposed to Jewish influences, and this need not cause surprise in view of the fact that Antiochus the Great transplanted two thousand families of Jews from Babylonia into Lydia and Phrygia, Jos. Ant. XII 6. 4. This number had, of course, greatly increased by the time the Epistle was written. Lightfoot estimates that the number of Jewish freemen was more than eleven thousand in the single district of which Laodicea was the capital. Cf. his essay on The Churches of the Lycus Valley in his Comm. p. 20.

According to the Epistle the Colossians were in danger of being misled by certain false teachings. As to the exact nature of the Colossian heresy there is a great variety of opinion. Some regard it as a mixture of Judaeistic and theosophic elements; others dub it Gnosticism or Gnostic Ebionism; and still others consider it to be a form of Essenism. We can infer from the Epistle that the errorists were members of the congregation, for they are described as those “not holding the head,” 2:19, an expression that is applicable only to those that had accepted Christ. And it seems perfectly clear that their error was primarily of a Jewish character, since they urged circumcision, not, indeed, as an absolute necessity, but as a means to perfection, 2:10-13; they appealed to the law and emphasized its ceremonial requirements and probably also the ordinances of the rabbis, 2:14-17, 20-23. Yet they clearly went beyond the Judaism that Paul encountered in his earlier Epistles, falsely emphasizing certain requirements of the law and adjusting their views to those of their Gentile neighbors. Their dualistic conception of the world led them, on the one hand, to an asceticism that was not demanded by the law. They regarded it as essential to abstain from the use of meat and wine, not because these were Levitically unclean, but since this abstinence was necessary for the mortification of the body, which they regarded as the seat of sin. They neglected the body and apparently aspired after a pure spiritual existence; to be like the angels was their ideal. On the other hand the consciousness of their great sinfulness as material beings made them hesitate to approach God directly. And the Jewish doctrine that the law was mediated by the angels, in connection with the influence that was ascribed to the spirits in their heathen environment, naturally led them to a worship of the angels as intermediaries between God and man. Among the higher spirits they also ranked Christ and thus failed to recognize his unique significance. The Colossian error was, therefore, a strange mixture of Jewish doctrines, Christian ideas and heathen speculation; and this composite character makes it impossible to identify it with any one heretical system of the apostolic time. Cf. especially Zahn, Einl. I p. 329 if.; Holtzmann, Einl. p. 248 if.; Lightfoot, Comm. pp. 71-111; Biesterveld, Comm. pp. 18-28.


1. Occasion and Purpose. From the Epistle itself we can readily infer what gave Paul occasion to write it. Epaphras, the founder and probably also the minister of the congregation, had evidently seen the danger, gradually increasing, that was threatening the spiritual welfare of the church. The errorists did not directly antagonize him or Paul; yet their teaching was a subversion of the Pauline gospel. Hence he informed the apostle of the state of affairs, and this information led to the composition of the Epistle.

The object Paul has in view is the correction of the Colossian heresy. Hence he clearly sets forth the unique significance of Christ, and the all-sufficient character of his redemption. Christ is the image of the invisible God, the Creator of the world, and also of the angels, and the only Mediator between God and man. He in whom all the fulness of the Godhead dwells, has reconciled all things to God and has delivered men from the power of sin and death. In his death He abrogated the shadows of the Old Testament and terminated the special ministry of the angels that was connected with the law, so that even this vestige of a supposed Biblical foundation for the worship of angels has been removed. In him believers are perfect and in him only. Hence the Colossians should not fall back on the beggarly elements of the world, nor in sham humility worship the angels. Having their life in Christ, they should conform to his image in all their domestic and social relations.

2. Time and Place. For the discussion of these we refer to what we have said in connection with the Epistle to the Ephesians. The letter was written at Rome about A. D. 61 or 62. Of course the majority of those who reject this Epistle date it somewhere in the second century.


The canonical character of this Epistle has never been doubted by the Church. There are slight but uncertain indications of its use in Clement of Rome, Barnabas and Ignatius. More important references to it are found in Justin Martyr and Theophilus. Marcion gave it a place in his canon, and in the Muratorian Fragment it is named as one of the Pauline Epistles. With Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian the quotations increase both in number and definiteness. That the Epistle is not quoted as often as Ephesians is probably due to its polemical character.

The permanent value of this letter is found primarily in its central teaching, that the Church of God is made perfect in Christ, its glorious Head. Since He is a perfect Mediator and the complete redemption of his people, they grow into him, as the Head of the body, they find the fulfillment of all their desires in him, as their Saviour, and they reach their perfection in him, as the Goal of the new creation. His perfect life is the life of the entire Church. Hence believers should seek to realize ever more in every atom of their existence the complete union with their divine Head. They should avoid all arbitrary practices, all human inventions and all will-worship that is derogatory to the only Mediator and Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.