Vincent's Word Studies

Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature in Union Theological Seminary New York.

The Epistle to the Colossians


For Colossae, see on Col 1:2.

The Gospel was first preached in the cities of the Lycus by Epaphras (Col 1:7; Col 4:12; Phm 1:23), who may also have founded the churches there. The theory that the church at Colossae was founded by Paul has no sufficient foundation. The church had never been personally visited by Paul. Though his missionary journeys had carried him into the Galatian and Phrygian country (Act 16:6), the indefinite usage of these terms, the absence of all hints of a visit in the epistle itself, and the notices of his route in the Acts, go to show that his path did not lie through the valley of the Lycus. Col 2:1, appears to indicate that the Colossians were personally unknown to him.

The occasion of the letter was the visit of Epaphras to the apostle in prison, and Paul's communication with Colossae in the matter of the restoration of Onesimus. Whether Epaphras shared his captivity or not (see on Phm 1:23), he did not return to Colossae with this letter, but remained in Paul's company (Col 4:12); and his stay in Rome was long enough to put the apostle fully in possession of the dangers which menaced the Colossian church. Paul took the opportunity of Tychicus' journey to Colossae with Onesimus, to send this letter.

Phrygia was a favorable soil for the development of error. “Cosmological speculation, mystic theosophy, religious fanaticism, all had their home there.” The leading worship was that of Cybele, the great Mother of the Gods, which was spread over Asia Minor generally, and especially prevailed in Mysia and Galatia. It was orgiastic, accompanied with frenzied dances, howlings, and self-mutilations. Phrygia was also the home of Ophitism, or serpent-worship. Montanism, with its ecstasy and trance, its faith-cures, its gloomy asceticism, its passion for martyrdom, and its savage intolerance, owed to Phrygia its leader; and the earlier name of the sect was “the Sect of the Phrygians.”

Under Antiochus the Great, two thousand Jewish families had been transplanted into Phrygia and Lydia; and while the staple of the church was Gentile, the epistle distinctly recognizes the presence and operation of Jewish influences (Col 2:16-21).

The form of error which prevailed at Colossae included three elements: Jewish formalism; speculative mysticism, representing the germs of what afterward developed as Gnosticism; and Essenism, the medium through which the Jewish and Gnostic elements came into combination.

Though Gnosticism, as such, had not developed itself at this time, a knowledge of its principal features is necessary to an intelligent reading of this epistle.

It took its name from gnosis knowledge, since it claimed for a select few the possession of a superior acquaintance with truth. Its tendencies were thus exclusive and aristocratic. The Gnostics denied the direct creation of the world by God, because God would thus be shown to be the creator of evil. God's creative energy was thwarted by the world of matter, which is essentially evil, in eternal antagonism to God, and with which God could not come into direct contact without tainting His nature. Hence creation became possible only through a series of emanations from God, each successive emanation being less divine, until the point was reached where contact with matter became possible. These emanations were called aeons, spirits, or angels; and to these worship was rendered with an affectation of humility in approaching the lower grades of divinity, instead of venturing into the immediate presence of the Supreme. The evil of matter was to be escaped either by rigid abstinence from the world of sense, or by independence of it. The system therefore tended to the opposite extremes of asceticism and licentiousness.

Essenism, in the apostolic age, had established itself in Asia Minor. The Essenes combined the ritualism of the Jew with the asceticism and mysticism of the Gnostic. They rigorously observed the Mosaic ritual, except in the matter of slain sacrifices, which they refused to offer, regarding their ordinary meals as sacrificial rites. They discountenanced marriage, and foreswore oil, wine, and animal food. Their theology revealed traces of sun-worship. Holding the immortality of the souls they denied the resurrection of the body. Their also held some mystical doctrine of emanations, as agents in creation, akin to that of the Gnostic aeons. Like the Gnostics, they maintained the evil of matter.

In this epistle Paul strikes at the intellectual exclusiveness of the Colossian heretics with the doctrine of the universality of the Gospel (Col 1:6, Col 1:23, Col 1:28; Col 3:11). Their gnosis - the pretended higher, esoteric wisdom - is met with the assertion of the Gospel as the true wisdom, the common property of all believers. The words wisdom, knowledge, full knowledge, intelligence, occur frequently in the epistle. Γνῶσις knowledge is used but once, while ἐπίγνωσις full knowledge, occurs four times, emphasizing the knowledge of God and of Christ as the perfection of knowledge. Divine wisdom is offered and prayed for as the privilege of Christians (Col 1:9, Col 1:27, Col 1:28; Col 3:10, Col 3:16). The pretended wisdom is denounced as deceitful philosophy, founded in tradition, and both its Gentile and its Jewish phases are characterized as mere elements or rudiments, unworthy of men in Christ (Col 2:8, Col 2:20). It is presumptuous and arrogant; a mere show of wisdom (Col 2:18, Col 2:23).

The doctrine of angelic mediators in the creation and government of the world is offset by the truth of the Eternal Son, begotten before the creation, by whom all things were created and are maintained, and who is also the only and absolute head of the Church (Col 1:15-18). For a succession of angelic emanations, each less divine than its predecessor, is substituted the Son of God, in whom dwells the sum-total of the divine powers and attributes (Col 1:19; Col 2:9). An angel or spirit, who is neither God nor man, cannot reconcile God and man. For the haziness which invests the personality and character of these intermediaries, we have the sharply defined personality of Christ, the Word made flesh, uniting in Himself the human and the divine, human even unto death, divine unto the eternal life and power of the Godhead, and thus reconciling and bringing into perfect unity all things in Himself (Col 1:19, Col 1:22; Col 2:9, Col 2:10).

The person of Christ is thus exhibited in two aspects, the cosmical and the theological, in its relations to the universe and to the Church. On the one hand, Christ is supreme in the creation and administration of the world (Col 1:15-17). “He is the beginning, middle, and end of creation.” On the other hand, Christ is supreme in the spiritual economy. “If the function of Christ is unique in the universe, so is it also in the Church.” In Him alone man is reconciled and united to God. In Him alone the individual children of God are compacted into one body, propelled and guided in their several activities, and each placed and held in due relation to the whole (Col 1:18, Col 1:22; Col 2:10-15, Col 2:19).

In this rigorous insistence upon the person of Christ as alone solving the problem of God's relation to the world, Paul strikes not only at the Colossian error, but also at the later error of Arius, whose Christ is of a different essence from God, His participation in the divine attributes partial, and His revelation therefore limited and imperfect. Arianism furnishes a principle of conduct, but not a basis of communion between the divine and the human. “The supernatural being whom Arius sets forth as a mediator between God and man, does not unite, but separates them, for He serves to reveal the infinite, impassable gulf that lies between them.”

Bishop Lightfoot most truthfully remarks: “Christ's mediatorial function in the Church is represented as flowing from His mediatorial function in the world. With ourselves this idea has retired very much into the background. Though in the creed common to all the churches we profess our belief in Him as the Being through whom all things were created, yet in reality this confession seems to exercise very little influence on our thoughts. And the loss is serious. How much our theological conceptions suffer in breadth and fullness by the neglect, a moment's reflection will show. How much more hearty would be the sympathy of theologians with the revelations of science and the developments of history, if they habitually connected them with the operation of the same Divine Word, who is the center of all their religious aspirations, it is needless to say.”

The doctrine of Christ as the true and only medium of union between God and man is fatal to the voluntary humility which substitutes the worship of angels for that of Christ. Christ is presented as the legitimate object of adoration, the refusal of which is a rupture of the connection between the members of the body and their Head (Col 2:18, Col 2:19). All things must be done in His name. The intercourse of the Church, the relations of the household, are to take their impulse and character directly from the indwelling word of Christ (Col 3:16-25). The Essene view of marriage is thus assailed (Col 3:18, Col 3:19). Asceticism, legalism, ritualism are condemned as fixing the mind upon mere external things. Their precepts are the merest rudiments of an earthly and sensual economy - “shadows of things to come.” The imposition of these precepts is a moral tyranny: “mere legal obligations are a part of a dead compact, a torn and canceled bond, which is now nailed to Christ's cross.” They do not lift the life into the higher moral and spiritual plane; they do not protect it against the temptations of the flesh; they furnish no efficient remedy for sin (Col 2:8, Col 2:16, Col 2:20, Col 2:23). Reconciliation with God through the blood of the cross will set the thoughts on heavenly things, will strangle unholy passions and indulgences, and will create a new man in the image of Christ (Col 1:20; Col 2:11, Col 2:14; Col 3:1-10). By this; asceticism and licentiousness are alike branded (Col 3:5).

The genuineness and authenticity of the epistle were universally acknowledged by the early Church, and not seriously questioned until the attack of Mayerhoff in 1838, followed by Baur and Schwegler. Holtzmann (1872) held that it was partly spurious, though containing a genuine epistle, which he fancied that he could extract. Dr. Davidson denies the Pauline authorship, and thinks it was written about 120 a.d. The assaults are, in part, on the same grounds as those against Ephesians - textual and grammatical departures from Paul's style, unique forms of expression, and differences of idea. Against Colossians in particular it is urged that the errors it attacks are later than Paul's date.

The Pauline authorship cannot be overthrown by any of these considerations. As to the errors treated in the epistle, it has already been shown that they contained the germs of later Gnosticism. The variations in style are no greater than those which appear in different writings by the same author. They are easily explained by difference of subject, and by the mental changes in the writer himself. Many of the unique words are echoes of the vocabulary of the heretical teachers (see especially in ch. 2. and notes), and every epistle of Paul contains numerous words which are found nowhere else. Not counting those which occur in the Septuagint, there are over a hundred in both Romans and First Corinthians; over ninety in Second Corinthians; thirty-three or four in Galatians; forty-one in Philippians; over thirty in the two Thessalonian letters, and above one hundred and fifty in the three Pastorals. The absence of peculiarly Pauline words and phrases it is only necessary flatly to deny. Any Greek student may satisfy himself on that point by means of a Concordance.

The Christology of the epistle is that of the earlier epistles, only more fully developed. Notably the preexistence of Christ is emphasized. The doctrine of Christ's person is more fully and precisely stated than in any other of Paul's letters.

The style lacks the richness and rhythmical sonorousness of Ephesians. This arises in part from its more controversial character, which betrays itself in Paul's style, here as elsewhere, by his employment of unusual words and long compounds. The earlier chapters especially are marked by a certain stiffness which is imparted by the rarity of the ordinary connecting particles, and the connection of the sentences by participial constructions and relative pronouns, or by “causal and inferential conjunctions” (see ch. 1). Bishop Lightfoot observes that “the absence of all personal connection with the Colossian church will partially, if not wholly, explain the diminished fluency of this letter. At the same time no epistle of Paul is more vigorous in conception or more instinct with meaning. It is the very compression of the thoughts which creates the difficulty. If there is a want of fluency, there is no want of force.” 

Taken from: "Vincent's Word Studies" By Marvin R. Vincent, D.D.

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