The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians --The Epistle of Paul to Philemon

[Sidenote: The Author.]

There is no good reason for doubting that this beautiful Epistle is the work of St. Paul. It is full of Pauline thought, and is well attested by external evidence. It is apparently quoted in the very ancient work known as the Epistle of Barnabas, and Justin Martyr quotes the title of Christ "the firstborn of all creation" (Col. i.15). It is included in Marcion's canon and in the Muratorian Fragment, as well as in the Old Latin and Peshitta Syriac versions. The notion that it is only a weak reflection of Ephesians seems incredible, for neither of the two Epistles is appreciably inferior to the other, and in each one there are several unique passages which represent as high a level of intellectual and spiritual attainment as the passages which are in some degree common to the two. Moreover, we cannot trace any definite method according to which the one writing has been used for the other, and destructive critics have only destroyed one another's arguments in their attempts to show which of the two Epistles is genuine, or why they both are forged. It is also important to consider the association of this Epistle with that to Philemon: the transparent genuineness of the latter makes it practically certain that Colossians is genuine as well.

Objections to the authenticity of Colossians have been {171} steadily growing fainter. It was denied by Mayerhoff in 1838, and by the whole Tuebingen school, in spite of very strong external evidence. (1) The heresy opposed by St. Paul was said to be a form of 2nd-century Gnosticism; but the affinities which it shows with Judaism point rather to the 1st century. (2) There are a large number of words which St. Paul uses nowhere else, thirty-four being found in no other part of the New Testament; but several of these words are called forth by the special error which St. Paul rebukes, and the Epistle does contain eleven Pauline words used by no other New Testament writer. (3) The doctrine has been declared to be not Pauline, but a further development of St. Paul's doctrine of the dignity of Christ. This objection rests entirely on the hypothesis that Jesus Christ was not God, but was gradually deified by successive generations of His followers. The critics who declared that no apostle believed Christ to be more than an ideal or half-divine man, and said that St. John's writings are forgeries of the 2nd century, described the doctrine of Colossians as a transition from the true Pauline doctrine to the doctrine of the Logos contained in the fourth Gospel. But St. Paul states nothing about Christ in this Epistle which is not implied in earlier Epistles. He only makes fresh statements of truth in view of fresh errors.

[Sidenote: To whom written.]

Colossae was the least important town to which any Epistle of St. Paul which now remains was addressed. The place was on the river Lycus in Phrygia, about ten miles from Laodicea and thirteen from Hierapolis, and thus the three towns were the sphere of the missionary work of the Colossian Epaphras (Col. iv.12, 13). Colossae had been flourishing enough in the time of Herodotus, but now, overshadowed by greater neighbours -- Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Chonae -- and perhaps shaken by recurring earthquakes, it was sinking fast into decay. Still it derived importance from its situation on the great main road which connected Rome with the eastern provinces, the road by {172} which Xerxes had led his great armament against Greece. And as the people had a special way of their own for producing a rich dye named Colossinus, it retained a fair amount of trade. We may account for the presence of Jews at Colossae which is suggested in the Epistle, by remembering its convenient position and its trade speciality. The people were mainly the descendants of Greek settlers and Phrygian natives, and the intellectual atmosphere was the same as that of which we have evidence in other parts of Asia Minor: every one was infected with the Greek keenness for subtle speculation, and the usual Phrygian tendency to superstition and fanaticism. Thirteen miles away, at Hierapolis, was growing into manhood the slave Epictetus, who later on will set out some of the most noble and lofty of pagan thoughts. The persistent love of the people of this neighbourhood for the angel-worship which St. Paul rebukes, is illustrated by the facts that in the 4th century a Church Council at Laodicea condemned the worship of angels, and that, in spite of this, in the 9th and 10th centuries the district was the centre of the worship of St. Michael, who was believed to have opened the chasm of the Lycus, and so saved the people of Chonae from an inundation.

Colossae, being exposed to the raids of the Moslem Saracens, disappeared from history in the 8th century.

The Church at Colossae was not founded by St. Paul, and he was not personally acquainted with it (Col. ii.1). But we can hardly go so far as to say that he had never seen the town at all.

[Sidenote: Where and when written.]

St. Paul sent this letter, together with that to Philemon and the circular which we call "Ephesians," by Tychicus from Rome, probably in A.D.60. He alludes to his imprisonment twice incidentally, and again with pathetic simplicity in the postscript added by his own hand, "Remember my bonds."

[Sidenote: Character and Contents.]

Some difficulties are connected with the heresy taught by the religious agitators at Colossae. It is plain that their {173} teaching affected both doctrine and practice. They appealed to visions and a knowledge of the celestial world (ii.18), and therefore set up a worship of angels which tended to thrust Christ from His true position in the creed of the Church. They treated the body with unsparing severity (ii.23), they abstained from meat and drink, and paid a punctilious attention to festivals, new moons, and sabbaths (ii.16). St. Paul calls these practices "material rudiments" (ii.8), elementary methods now superseded by faith in Christ. Moreover, it is almost certain that literal circumcision was practised (ii.11). These things point to Judaism. And yet St. Paul does not seem to be rebuking a return to the Judaism of the Old Testament. He could hardly have described a compliance with Old Testament injunctions as an "arbitrary religion" and "doctrines of men" (ii.1, 22, 23). It might be Pharisaism, but if we look in the direction of Judaism, it is most natural that we should think of a Judaism resembling that of the Essenes. The Essenes were vegetarians, they avoided wine, they kept the sabbath with special scrupulousness, and had some secret teaching about the angels. These resemblances have tempted some commentators to identify the false teachers with the Essenes. But there is nothing to prove that the Essenes worshipped the angels, and St. Paul makes no mention of the Essene veneration for the sun, or their monastic life, or their elaborate process of initiation. Besides this, the principal community of Essenes dwelt by the Dead Sea, and it is very doubtful if any existed in Asia Minor.

It is best to confess our ignorance. All that we can say is that the scruple-mongers at Colossae taught doctrines which had points of contact with Essenism. They employed some affected interpretation of the Old Testament. They also were influenced by heathenism in their conception of half-divine beings intermediate between God and the world. How far they held any definitely dualistic view of matter we cannot tell. {174} But their system was a mischievous theosophy, which they endeavoured to popularize under catchwords like "wisdom" and "philosophy." The fact that there was at this time such a widespread tendency to adopt an exaggerated asceticism and theories about mediatorial spirits, makes it unnecessary to suppose that the Colossian heresy need be affiliated to any particular school of speculation.

The Epistle consists mainly of a more or less indirect argument against the insidious "philosophy" of the heretics, with an exhortation and personal notes.

Perhaps we account most naturally for the broken order and lax coherence of this letter, by the suggestion that, as St. Paul dictated it, there was present with him a sense of almost nervous hesitation. He has exactly a gentleman's reluctance to do an ungracious action: while he knows that it is his duty to warn the Colossians of a serious danger, he knows that unless he does so with much tactful delicacy, they will resent his interference. So he begins by saying what polite things he can about them, and instead of going on at once to talk of the heresy, he first says with plain significance that he perpetually prays for their perfection in knowledge, activity, and constancy. An incidental allusion to God's method for human salvation gives St. Paul an opportunity for making a digression -- one of the most important statements in the New Testament -- concerning the nature and work of Christ (i.14-20). He shows the Colossians what views they ought to hold concerning Him. This would keep them from giving to the angels what is due to Christ alone. Christ is the Redeemer. He was born prior to all creation, even the angels, and all creation coheres through union with Him (i.15-17). He is the Head of the Church in virtue of His resurrection, and as embodying the full number of divine attributes (i.18, 19). He is the Saviour of angels and men by His death, and in this salvation the Colossians ought to share (i.20-23).

It seems that now he will deal with the heresy, but again he {175} postpones it. He breaks in with a digression of a pastoral character. He speaks of his commission to preach (i.24-29), his anxiety even for Churches that he has never visited (ii.1-5), and he exhorts the Colossians to continue in their original faith (ii.6, 7).

At last he enters upon the main business of the Epistle and begins dogmatic controversy. After a warning against spurious philosophy, he asserts that Christ is the sole incarnation of Deity, to whom all spirits are subject (ii.9, 10). This is the true doctrine: God has not divided His attributes among a group of angels; all are to be found in Christ. And the true method of salvation is simply that union with Christ which begins with baptism, the Christian's circumcision. In it we receive that forgiveness which was won for us when Christ died, and both blotted out the Law and triumphed over evil angels (ii.13-15). The apostle then directly condemns the practices of the false teachers -- their anxious and mechanical conduct with regard to food and seasons, their intrusion into celestial secrets and their doctrine of angel-worship, their loose hold on Christ the Head, symptoms of an affected humility which is no real check against the indulgence of the flesh (ii.16-23).

He then turns to practical exhortation. In the bracing words made familiar to us by the Epistle for Easter Day, St. Paul bids the Colossians leave the gently stimulating exercise of intellectual theorizing and listen to the stern demands made by Christ on life and character. They have risen to a life hid with Christ in God; they must make dead the faculties of sensual action, angry thinking, and evil speaking: this is implied in forsaking heathenism for the universal Christ (iii.1-11). Live quietly in peace and love, show a gracious life in a gracious worship, consecrate your words and deeds by doing all in the name of the Lord Jesus (iii.12-17).

Then the special duties of wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and masters, are dealt with. Prayer and thanksgiving are enjoined on all alike, and the Christians are bidden {176} to "buy up the opportunity" of furthering the cause of God in their dealings with the outer world, having their speech seasoned with the salt of wholesome wisdom (iii.18-iv.6). A few words are said about Tychicus, Onesimus, and other friends, including "Luke, the beloved physician," and the Epistle ends with a farewell which St. Paul wrote with his own hand. Before writing it, the apostle directs that this letter should be read at Laodicea, and that the Colossians should procure another letter which had been left in that city. This was probably the so-called Epistle to the Ephesians.


Salutation, thanksgiving, the apostle's prayer for the readers (i.1-13).

Christ, who redeemed us, is pre-eminent in Person, being the Head of the natural creation, and of the spiritual creation, because the sum of divine attributes dwells in Him (i.14-19). He is pre-eminent in work, having reconciled us to God (i.20-23).

St. Paul's own commission and his anxiety (i.24-ii.7). Warning against the delusion of a false philosophy. The "fulness" is in Christ, therefore the Colossians must avoid semi-Jewish practices and also avoid the worship of angels (ii.8-19). The converts have died with Christ to their old life and earthly ordinances (ii.20-25).

The converts have risen with Christ to a new life and heavenly principles, vices must be made dead, virtues must be put on (iii.1-17).

Obligations of wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters (iii.18-iv.1).

The duty of prayer and thanksgiving, and right behaviour towards the unconverted (iv.2-6).

Personal conclusion, and a message relating to an Epistle from Laodicea (iv.7-18).



[Sidenote: The Author.]

The genuineness of this winning little letter could never be doubted except by the most dryasdust of pedants. It is no proof of acuteness to detect the artifice of a forger in its earnest simplicity, its thoughtful tact, and affectionate anxiety. There is about it a vivacity and directness which at once and decisively stamp it as genuine. And external evidence shows that it was included in the earliest lists of St. Paul's Epistles. It was accepted by Marcion, included in the Muratorian Fragment, and expressly attributed to St. Paul by Origen. It shows a number of coincidences with Colossians, Ephesians, and Philippians, and it is especially connected with Colossians by the proper names which it contains, such as Archippus, Aristarchus, Mark, and Luke. No evidence exists to show that any early Christians denied this Epistle to be by St. Paul. But it does appear that some of them half disliked its inclusion in the Canon, thinking it too trivial to be numbered with the Scriptures. To modern readers it manifests a great treatment of little things, which is one of the surest proofs of inspiration.

[Sidenote: To whom written.]

The Epistle is addressed to Philemon, a substantial citizen of Colossae. He has been converted by St. Paul, who writes with deep appreciation of his faith in Christ, and of the kindness that he has shown to the saints. He gives him the honourable title of "fellow-worker." Religious services and the social gatherings of Christians are held in Philemon's house.

[Sidenote: Where and when written.]

This Epistle was written during St. Paul's first imprisonment in Rome, A.D.59-61. In ver.10 St. Paul alludes to his "bonds."

[Sidenote: Character and Contents.]

Philemon had a Phrygian slave named Onesimus, who first {178} robbed him and then ran away. Onesimus was able without much difficulty to get to Rome, and here he met the apostle, who received him into the Church. The young convert served him with such eager willingness that St. Paul would have been glad to keep him with him, but he decides to send him back to Philemon with this letter to ensure his forgiveness.

We have, therefore, in this letter a picture of St. Paul in a new relation. There is no other letter in the New Testament of such a private nature except 3 John. The great apostle of the Gentiles is taking his pen to provide a dishonest runaway slave with a note that shall shield him from the just anger of his master. He writes both with a strong sense of justice and with his own perfect diplomatic instinct. The letter is at once authoritative, confident, and most gentle. He does not command or insist, yet it is quite clear that Philemon must do just what he asks. There is no violent attack upon slavery as an institution. Any such attack would have been both foolish and criminal. For it would have encouraged slaves to make Christianity a cloak for revolt, and precipitated horrors far worse than those which it could have professed to remove. But St. Paul asserts a principle which will eventually prove fatal to slavery. When he tells Philemon to receive Onesimus "as a brother beloved," he is really saying that our estimate of men must not be based on their social class, but rather on their relation to God.

This letter has been compared with a letter written under similar circumstances by the younger Pliny, one of the best of the pagan gentlemen of Rome. But while the letter of Pliny is more elegant in language, the letter of St. Paul is a finer masterpiece of feeling. A Roman slave was still allowed no rights and no family relationship, and for the smallest offence he might be tortured and killed. In the next century the Emperor Hadrian first took away from masters the power of life and death over their slaves, and it was not until the time {179} of the Emperor Constantine, who established Christianity, that the laws affecting slavery pointed to the future triumph of emancipation. But the ancient conception of slavery was doomed as soon as "slave-girls like Blandina in Gaul, or Felicitas in Africa, having won for themselves the crown of martyrdom, were celebrated in the festivals of the Church with honours denied to the most powerful and noblest born of mankind." [1]


Salutation from Paul and Timothy to Philemon and Apphia (? wife), to Archippus and the Church in Philemon's house; thanksgiving for Philemon's faith; a plea for the pardon of Onesimus, St. Paul promises to be responsible for what was stolen; a lodging to be prepared for St. Paul; concluding salutations, benediction.

[1] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, p.325.


chapter xiii the epistle of
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