Colossians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Paul's Prayer of Thanksgiving

Typically, the second section of Paul's letters expresses his thanksgiving for the spiritual formation of his readers. In this way Paul continues the practice of other letter writers in the ancient world, who offered thanks to their gods for blessings received, often the deliverance from some physical calamity or economic ruin (O'Brien 1982:7-9). The thanksgivings that typically introduce Paul's letters are quite different; they suggest dependence on the biblical psalms more than the secular literary conventions of his day. The tone of Paul's thanksgivings is worshipful, often fashioned as a prayer. It is offered to his readers much like a pastor's invocation at the beginning of a worship service, which calls a congregation to worship God.

Paul's long sentences (1:3-8 and 1:9-11 are each a single sentence) evoke the sense of sustained conversation with God as the proper setting for reading or hearing Paul's letter. Further, Paul's thanksgivings are full of important theological themes that will be taken up again in what follows. My point is this: Paul's purpose in thanking God with profound prayer and praise is to locate his instruction in a setting of worship. Here, in perhaps the most worshipful portion of his letter, Paul remains very much a pastor seeking to nurture his flock. He does not compose his letters from a scholar's study in some ivory tower; his prison cell is a pastor's study, and as he writes, the concerns of his flock weigh on his heart and mind.

Paul's expression of thanksgiving serves not only a pastoral role within the congregation but also an introductory role within the composition. At an emotional level, Paul's prayer for the well-being of his readers helps to establish a constructive environment for reading his often critical letter. Especially by offering intercession for the Colossians' spiritual growth (1:9-11), Paul projects the image of a caring pastor rather than a judgmental patron. His warm and worshipful tone is especially important since his readers do not know Paul on a first-name basis and, even though he is their apostle, they may well require his acceptance of them before they are ready to accept his advice.

More important, the letter's thanksgiving includes a hint of the spiritual crisis at hand. Wright comments that Paul's references to his prayer are not "devotional musings" detached from the more important "main body" of the letter (1986:49). Quite deliberately, the prayer forms the logical basis for Paul's subsequent admonitions. In the case of Colossians, the second half of Paul's thanksgiving (vv. 9-11) petitions God for the congregation's understanding of the gospel, so that it will live a life worthy of the Lord. By equating the "worthy life" with every good work (1:10), this theologian of grace introduces his message to the Colossians in a provocative way: a more thorough knowledge of the gospel they have heard and accepted (vv. 7-8) is required to produce a practical Christianity of good works and transformed lives (vv. 9-11).

Upon closer reading, even the chiastic structure of the thanksgiving portion of Paul's letter illumines his message. A chiasmus (from a Greek word that means "marked with an X") is a literary pattern used by a skilled writer to help readers remember the important points. In a passage formed in a chiastic pattern, the author presents a sequence of key ideas and then repeats the same ideas in inverted order. What distinguishes a chiasmus from an inverted parallelism, found frequently in the Old Testament psalms, is the presence of a new idea located between the two inverted sequences. Scholars call this new idea found at the X the chiastic "vertex"; this pivotal idea expresses the chief concern around which the other ideas find their meaning. The vertex of a chiasmus works rather like the point guard of a basketball team or the quarterback of an American football team: he is the team's playmaker who controls the surrounding action and enhances the play of his teammates.

Viewed as a literary chiasmus, Paul's thanksgiving contains two parallel although inverted series of three theological ideas (vv. 3-6 and vv. 9-12), with the vertex in between (vv. 7-8), as follows:

A We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you (v. 3),

B because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints--the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven (vv. 4-5)

C and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God's grace in all its truth (vv. 5-6).

D You learned [the gospel] from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit (vv. 7-8).

C' For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might (vv. 9-11)

B' so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully (v. 11)

A' giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light (v. 12).

Paul first (A/A') gives thanks to God, because he has heard reports of the readers' piety, described by two related triads of good works (B, faith, love and hope, and B', endurance, patience and joy). He concludes by interpreting their piety to be the natural fruit and logical growth of accepting the gospel's truth (C/C').

Paul actually interrupts his prayerful thanksgiving to mention the ministry of faithful Epaphras, through whom the gospel first came to the Colossians. This interruption works to draw the readers into the vertex, or pivotal point, of Paul's opening comments. Epaphras is a well-known exemplar of practical piety. Like Timothy (1:1), he is a "fellow servant" and "faithful minister" in the hard work of the Gentile mission. That is, Epaphras embodies the "right stuff" that Paul desires for all his readers, whose spiritual crisis is their failure to incarnate their faith in practical, life-transforming forms. Their tendency is rather to exchange the word of truth (v. 5), which Epaphras proclaims and embodies, for "fine-sounding arguments" (2:4) that are rooted in a "hollow and deceptive philosophy" (2:8).

Perhaps Paul is concerned about Epaphras's current status among the Colossian believers and places this comment at the thanksgiving's vertex to help secure his reputation as an exemplary believer. While it remains impossible for us to know just why Paul makes this strategic reference to Epaphras, two biblical clues fashion an outline of Epaphras's story that help confirm my speculation. First, church tradition asserts that the Epaphras who shared Paul's prison cell according to Philemon 23 is the same Epaphras Paul mentions in Colossians. While the references to Epaphras in Colossians do not suggest that he is in prison, Philemon, which was written before Colossians, could refer to an earlier imprisonment. Epaphras's past imprisonment could well have resulted in a prolonged absence from Colosse, during which time others (including theological opponents) could have taken charge of the congregation's spiritual nurture. Now that he is able to return to his former ministry, Paul's prayer recalls the importance of Epaphras's earlier ministry to reestablish him in this congregation.

A second and more important clue comes from Colossians 4:12-13, where Paul vouches for Epaphras's commitment to the Colossian congregation. Why would Paul sense a need to vouch for Epaphras and to stress the close tie the two men share in the Gentile mission? Masson has suggested that Paul wants to overturn Epaphras's reputation for incompetence, and even laziness, which has helped the false teachers succeed (1950:156). While this speculation seems strained to me, it is true that Paul is concerned with Epaphras's reputation. I suspect Paul is concerned because the truth of Epaphras's teaching, which had converted the readers to Christ, is now jeopardized. In this sense, Paul's letter defines and defends the content of Epaphras's teaching and witness.

In any case, I am convinced that Epaphras's relationship with the Colossian church is a key to unlocking the reason Paul wrote Colossians. Certainly the reputation of any congregation's spiritual mentors, past and present, is an important issue to consider. I recall as a young boy seeing the portraits of former pastors displayed prominently in our church's narthex. They were a loving reminder of our congregation's spiritual heritage and encouraged all of us not to depart from it. In a similar way, Paul's desire to promote Epaphras's work in Colosse has the effect of an exhortation to follow his faithful example and to maintain the word of truth he had proclaimed to them.Thanks Be to God (1:3)

Paul always gives thanks for God's work in the lives of others. Here he uses the plural pronoun--we always thank God . . . when we pray for you--in order to emphasize the corporate nature of his ministry. The prayers he regularly shares with others, such as Timothy (1:1) and Epaphras (1:7-8; see also 4:12), seek to benefit others spiritually without assuming any special status for himself. Further, Paul's prayer is centered on God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Worship never congratulates people or focuses on their material needs; rather, Christian worship is rooted in our singular devotion to God, from whom and to whom our salvation is directed.

Paul's frequent use of Father alludes to an important Old Testament metaphor for God's covenantal relationship with Israel. Thanksgiving is given to God, then, within the framework of a covenant of mutual fidelity. Thus, to express thanks to God as our Father not only acknowledges God's faithfulness to us but also assumes our covenantal obligation to obey God in return, even as the child is responsible to bring honor to his or her father. So thanksgiving anticipates our own faithfulness to a faithful God, which is made possible by God's grace through faith in Christ (see Eph 2:8-10).The Fruit of Colossian Faith (1:4-5)

Paul next characterizes the congregation's life by the familiar triad of faith, love and hope (1 Thess 1:3; 1 Cor 13:13).

I work best under the pressure of a deadline. Having a particular goal in mind for a task helps me to accomplish it more quickly and effectively. And Paul here lays a goal before his readers. While he uses the triad of faith, love and hope to commend the Colossians, it also serves to set out the objectives of Christian life. Every task that we perform, every calling we hear, every burden we respond to, every act of worship and every opportunity to witness should aim to strengthen our faith, love and hope.

Paul mentions faith first; faith for him occupies the place of prominence in the Christian life. (More than one-half of all the New Testament references to "faith" are found in Pauline writings!) Unlike John, who emphasizes the act of believing, Paul's phrase your faith in Christ Jesus probably does not refer to personal decisions for Christ as the object of faith (but see Schweizer 1982:33). Rather, Paul's idea of faith emphasizes a relationship with Christ which nurtures a distinctive religious identity. Typically, Paul distinguishes the church's relationship with Christ from other religious traditions (especially Judaism) whose identity in the world is fashioned by different practices (such as observance of the law). Further, in continuity with the Old Testament writers, the content of faith for Paul is a narrative of God's salvation. The believer trusts in the God whose promised salvation is fulfilled in the life of God's people through a sequence of historic events, climaxing with the dying and rising of the Messiah. Often, as in the confessions of Colossians 1:13-23, Paul provides his readers with a recital of the redemptive events which are to be trusted as true and effective for salvation (see also Rom 10:9).

Also note that Paul often uses various prepositions with faith to express different aspects of the church's vital relationship with Christ. For example, through (dia) is combined with faith to express the means by which reconciliation with God is achieved during the new dispensation (as in Col 2:12 and Rom 3:25). Or when Paul wishes to specify the precise object of human trust, he will use on (epi): a relationship with Christ requires trusting on God's gracious action in Christ (Rom 4:5). In the triadic formula of Colossians 1:4-5, Paul uses the preposition in (en) to indicate a place or even a community where people live. A community of faith has been cleansed of sin; it is a place, created by divine grace through human faith, where the Spirit reigns and where believers are liberated from the power and consequences of sin. In this sense, faith in God is the way into Christ, where spiritual resources are found that empower faithful living.

Paul sees salvation as something Christians experience together. To enter the living Christ by faith is to experience intimate fellowship with him and also with other believers (1 Cor 12; Gal 5:6-11). Christianity is not the private religion of a particular believer. Rather, every believer is baptized with other believers into Christ, where they worship God together and where God's grace forms them into a community to love one another.

Appropriately, love (agape) comes next in Paul's triad. He uses an article with love (literally, "the love") to make more definitive and concrete his idea of love. Paul resists abstractions; for him love is a transforming act, not a moral principle or an empathetic feeling. Love is faith in motion (Gal 5:6), so that even divine love is understood by specific acts, such as Christ's death. Further, the phrase for all the saints suggests love's unconditional and inclusive character: it embraces the entire congregation. Here too the preposition for (eis) is crucial, because it points love in the direction of another person; love is always for someone else.

Finally, the community's shared faith and mutual love result in their common hope for God's coming salvation. The NIV's loose translation of the difficult phrase dia ten elpida, "for the sake of hope," correctly indicates that faith and love are the effective yield of hope: faith and love . . . spring from hope. This should not seem remarkable to us (cf. Moule 1968:49), even though we might expect Paul to view faith or love as the ground of hope. He does speak elsewhere about the impossibility of a hopeless faith (1 Cor 15:12-19) or a hopeless love (1 Thess 3:12-13), and in 1 Thessalonians he combines faith and love to make hope their common foundation (1 Thess 1:3; cf. 5:8). The curious phrase which speaks of hope as stored up in heaven (see also 1:23, 27) may point to the tension between a salvation already realized in heaven but not yet fully realized on earth (3:1-4). Paul recognizes that our experience of God's salvation is partial, our love still imperfect and our faith yet incomplete (1 Cor 13:10-12). Hope projects the completion of love and perfection of faith into a certain future, when the Risen Christ returns to earth and God triumphs over sin and death "on earth as it is in heaven."

Hope may also point to a crisis of faith and love. Biblical writers, especially Paul, are quite clear about the logical relationship between eschatology and present life. For example, if we believe that a restored creation awaits the end of history when Christ returns, then we are likely to view the present order in pessimistic, world-denying ways. We are less likely to work for changes within the cultural order if our hope for change rests only in Christ's future return. We are likely to view salvation as personal rather than public and as spiritual rather than social. Paul's concern is for a balanced perspective. On the one hand, he agrees that Christ's work will have its perfect result in the restoration of all things at his future return. On the other hand, Christ's work already is transforming believers into the community of faith and love, and the presence of that transformed community does make a positive difference in the surrounding social order.

Illustrations of this abound. Even now, evil cannot triumph over grace! Paul never promotes a world-denying discipleship; he underscores how life within the world is transformed by God's grace. Believers who trust Christ for their salvation belong to him and not to the world; they are "in him" and under his lordship (1:15-20), where all things spiritual and material are made new by grace (3:9-10).

In the case of the Thessalonians, both faith in Christ and love for one another were threatened by a faulty hope. Apparently, new Christians had become confused about the status of those who had died before Christ's return. They supposed that the "dead in Christ" could not now participate fully in God's final triumph over sin, discouraging those still "alive in Christ." Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians to correct a faulty futuristic eschatology (see 1 Thess 4:13--5:11), in order to comfort believers (1 Thess 4:18; 5:11) and encourage a more mature faith (1 Thess 3:2-10; 4:14; 5:8) and active love (1 Thess 3:11-13; 4:9-10; 5:8).

Perhaps Paul introduces his letter to the Colossians with the faith-love-hope triad to correct another faulty hope that threatened the faith and love of early Christians. Paul's emphasis in Colossians, however, is on a "realized" rather than "futuristic" eschatology (see introduction; also see R. Martin 1991:48 for a different view). Indeed, there is some evidence that Paul's Colossian opponents promote a futuristic view of salvation, resulting in a retreat from society (2:16-23; O'Brien 1982:12). While I do not think eschatology is a primary feature of the false teaching at Colosse, Paul clearly writes this letter to find a proper balance between what portion of God's salvation is already possessed and what portion will be possessed at Christ's return (3:1-4). Moreover, Paul opposes any retreat from society that neglects the church's responsibility to confront and convert the lost. I suspect Paul's stress on hope may even carry evangelistic freight: only when the lost are made to see the hope of their salvation will faith and love spring forth from them.The Fruit of the Gospel (1:5-6)

Paul shifts from thanking God for what we have heard about the Colossians to what you have already heard about . . . the gospel. The common verb hear logically relates Paul's favorable report of the Colossians' life with the Colossians' reception of the gospel, so that the one results from the other: because the Colossians have already heard the Christian gospel (and presumably believed it to be true), their lives have been transformed. This connection of proclamation and transformation makes perfect sense to Paul, whose missionary experience is of the gospel . . . bearing fruit and growing (see Luke 8:1-15). Moreover his personal experience is validated by Scripture, whose stories of Old Testament prophets heralded the good news of God's salvation as the final solution to Israel's spiritual and sociological woes. We should not be surprised, then, that Luke's narratives of Paul's calling on the Damascus Road (cf. Acts 9:1-19; 22:6-21; 26:9-23) and Paul's own allusions to the same event reverberate with echoes of the prophets called by God to their evangelistic tasks (compare Gal 1:11-17 and Jer 1:4-19). Like the prophets of old, Paul is called to preach the gospel; and as with the Israel of old, the church's believing response results in restoration by God's powerful grace.

The content of Paul's gospel is the word of truth. Even as the prophets of God proclaimed "the word of the Lord," so does Paul. The subject matter of Paul's gospel is theological because its source is God; its claims can be trusted as true because God is Truth. Significantly, the phrase word of truth translates a Hebraism more naturally rendered "God's true word" (as in Ps 119:43). In the Old Testament the phrase refers to the content of God's revelation given in Torah (literally, Law), which is a reliable guide to God's promised blessing. This intimate union of revealed truth and experienced life is noted elsewhere in Paul's writings, where the reconciling "word" (2 Cor 5:19) comes from God (1 Cor 14:36), the Lord (1 Thess 1:8) or Christ (Col 3:16) in order to shape the life of the faith community (Phil 2:16). This equation of divine revelation and human experience anticipates Paul's argument against the Colossian "philosopher," whose teaching is a "word of falsehood" and results in spiritual and eschatological death rather than in life (see O'Brien 1982:12). The "deceptive philosophy" of Colosse, which fashioned a private and mystical religion, would also diminish interest in the work of evangelism and thereby undermine the prospect of changed lives.

In order to highlight the importance of evangelism, Paul cites two results of his Gentile mission. First, the proclaimed gospel is being heard all over the world. Paul's phrase does not refer to the universal scope of his Gentile mission (as Houlden and Lohse suggest) but rather to its "triumphal progress" (as O'Brien says) that now has come to Colosse. Perhaps Paul's phrase echoes Jesus' "parables of growth," in which growth (of a tree, a tiny mustard seed, a loaf of bread) signals the ultimate triumph of God's covenant people. In this sense, the progress of the Gentile mission to Colosse fulfills in part the promise contained in Jesus' parables.

Second, the gospel message is the medium by which the whole world comes to understand the truth about God's grace. Nowhere in Paul's writings is there a more succinct expression of the importance of evangelism than here: the proclamation of the gospel clarifies the intentions and results of grace. God's grace is a difficult notion for most people to grasp, partly because it contradicts so much of what we learn and experience from the non-Christian society that surrounds and conditions us. Secular humanism teaches that only the self-sufficient individual survives; secular materialism teaches that only the self-interested individual prospers. Everyday experience teaches us that receiving gifts from others is conditioned on first giving gifts. In Western society, as in ancient Colosse, the myths and idols of secular humanism provide no resources for understanding the gospel's truth that one's humanity survives and prospers only because of the loving interest of God and the sufficiency of God's grace. And the medium of the message is the proclamation of the gospel for conversion.The Central Point: Let Epaphras Be Your Example (1:7-8)

A third "just as" clause (omitted by the NIV) issues in the prayer's vertex, where Paul's pivotal point is made (see the discussion of chiasmus, above): the fruit proper to the hearing and understanding of the gospel is exemplified by the evangelist Epaphras (see "The Crisis at Colosse" in the introduction). In another sense, Paul's pastoral concern provides his readers with a personal illustration of his earlier triad: Epaphras is faith, love and hope in action. Thus, his faith in Christ Jesus (1:4) is embodied in his work as a faithful minister of Christ; his love for all the saints (1:4) is embodied in his support of Paul and ministry to the Colossians (Lohse 1976:23; compare Rom 5:5; 15:30; Gal 5:22); finally, his ministry, through which the Colossians learned the good news of God's grace, has grounded them in their hope that is stored up . . . in heaven (1:5). Epaphras, then, is the exemplary mediator of the message. He illustrates what Paul insists upon: that the good news about God's salvation in Christ must be proclaimed.

I am not at all convinced of the value of "church growth" strategies that encourage church planting without evangelism; nor am I convinced of the value of expository preaching that fails to call the congregation to conversion and spiritual renewal by the simple preaching of the gospel. Even mature believers must be reminded with some regularity of the truth that calls people to Christ. Central to Paul's definition of the church is its missionary activity: we must be a people of the gospel. Paul contends that the preaching of the gospel yields a healthy harvest in the congregation's spiritual life. The ministry of evangelism is prudent not only because it illumines the truth about Christ and leads people into Christ, but also because there, in Christ, lives and relationships are transformed. The example of Epaphras reminds believers that the ministry of evangelism can revitalize the whole church, making it stronger and even more productive for the Lord.The Fruit of the Gospel (1:9-11)

The second part of Paul's prayer repeats in reverse order the words and ideas found in 1:3-6, but this time in intercession for the Colossian believers. The content of Paul's petitions reflects the nature of his pastoral concern. This concern is clearly marked out in the text as a purpose clause: Paul intercedes for the Colossians in order that God may fill you with knowledge so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord. The essence of this "worthy life," exemplified by Epaphras, is defined by two participles, each modified by a prepositional phrase, which together recall the yield of the gospel ministry (1:6): bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.

While the apostle Paul is impressed by the report of the congregation's spiritual development, his petition seems to detect a certain immaturity in them that fails to discern what is spiritually important. Hence, he asks God for increased knowledge and spiritual wisdom and understanding for them. This accumulation of similar terms for true knowledge underscores its importance to Paul. The progress of Christian formation follows up rebirth with retraining. While the Colossians have learned the word of truth from Epaphras, they are apparently too easily confused by false teaching; their faith in Christ Jesus is not "as hard as nails," and their Christian witness has suffered as a result. At its root, the Colossian crisis is a crisis of knowing God. And so it is with every challenge to a congregation's spiritual formation.

Paul's concern for a more comprehensive knowledge of God's will as the basis of living for God in the world is profoundly Jewish in nature (see Schweizer 1982:41). Knowledge for its own sake--as "fine-sounding arguments" (2:4) or as philosophy "which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world" (2:8)--is simply not valued by Paul. Knowing God, the yield of an active spiritual life, sparks obedience to God, and obedience finds its eschatological reward (3:1-5; compare Rom 2:5-11). In a similar sense, the writer to the Hebrews warns against being satisfied with a rudimentary understanding of "the elementary truths of God's word" and calls for a more mature wisdom that can "distinguish good from evil" (Heb 5:12, 14). That is, a mature knowledge of God's Word always yields a practical and public result: behavior that conforms to the will of God, which is "doing good" (compare 1 Pet 3:17).

The biblical illiteracy that characterizes so many clergy and congregations today is largely responsible for a church that seems powerless to stem the tide of secular materialism. In fact, often there is really nothing except words glibly confessed that distinguishes the believer from the nonbeliever (see 1 Cor 4:20). It might seem to those outside of faith that Christ makes no difference in the way we live or think. Even when we place ourselves under Scripture's claim, we do so for individual reasons, with individual questions, for individual direction. In such cases the result of submitting to Scripture's witness to God is rarely repentance that leads to transformed relationships with others. Paul's concern and his prayer for the Colossians, therefore, have their counterpart today.

The expression every good work is not typical of Paul, especially since he links it to a life that pleases [God] in every way; but it is not unlike Paul to stress the practical outcome of knowing God (compare Phil 1:10), as some commentators have reminded us (see Lohse 1976:29-30). This reminder seems especially appropriate in light of the (I think false) distinction some conservative expositors make between our confessions that "Jesus is Savior" and "Jesus is Lord." Paul's theology is centered by the Old Testament idea of covenant that binds together a gracious God and a people of faith (see Rom 9--11). A covenant between two partners is the product of concrete actions by each one for the other. In the case of the biblical covenant, God's gracious initiatives toward God's people and their obedient responses secure a relationship that results in a lasting salvation. Without one or the other there would be no relationship, no covenant, no blessing.

Paul's gospel, as reflected in his letters, emphasizes God's gracious initiative in Christ. In fact, so keen is Paul's emphasis on God's covenanting grace that it is quite possible to mistake his idea of salvation as consisting only of God's unilateral and unconditional act in Christ. More precisely, however, Paul retains a biblical understanding of God's covenantal relationship with Israel: Israel's actual participation in God's promised salvation depends on its response to God. While salvation is unconditionally offered, it is entered into only when certain conditions are met. "Obedience of faith" (see Rom 1:5; 16:26) and "good works" (Rom 2:5-11) are required before God's positive verdict is given. Of course, for Paul good works are the public indications of a believer's "obedience of faith" in Christ; they are the results of participating with him in God's salvation. For Paul, then, a firm dependence upon what God has already accomplished through Christ is the single requirement for getting into--and staying in--the community covenanted with God for salvation. The emphasis of his prayer of intercession, then, must be understood in terms of the deeper "theo-logic" of his gospel: to understand God's grace in all its truth by the preaching of the gospel (1:6) will produce good works, not independent from but the result of divine grace (compare Phil 2:12-13).

A third circumstantial participle, being strengthened, along with its adjoining prepositional phrase with all power, introduces a second triad of virtues--endurance, patience and joy. The second triad interacts with the first (1:4-5) to describe the congregation's new life in Christ. In this case Paul links the knowledge of God with the power of God, additionally alluding to the Old Testament idiom [God's] glorious might. God's grace is not a theological abstraction; it is God's power that empowers a community to walk in a way that pleases the Lord (compare 1 Cor 2:5; 4:19-20; 12:10; Eph 1:18-19). Grace makes the promises of God real in people's lives. The additional reference to God's glory is rooted in the Old Testament concern for God's reputation. God's might enabled Israel to wage war against God's enemies so that the nations might come to know "the power of his might" (Lohse 1976:30). In this context, Paul prays that God's gracious power may transform the Colossians to live in the marketplace and town square in a manner that upholds God's reputation.

The life that demonstrates God's glorious might is characterized by endurance, patience and joy. Like the first triad, this one has an eschatological basis: it characterizes a people in whose life the new age has already dawned (compare Gal 5:22-23), with the capacity to maintain hope in God's future triumph (Col 1:5; 1 Thess 5:14) even in the midst of present adversity (2 Cor 6:4-5; Jas 1:2-4; 5:10-11). Yet the second triad also extends the significance of the first. While the first establishes the ideal characteristics of true religion (faith, love, hope), the second triad envisions the characteristics that are necessary to overcome spiritual conflict in maturing toward the ideal Christian life.

Difficult circumstances that place the believer under spiritual siege may well be obvious to a congregation: a recent tragedy in a member's family, a current controversy in the surrounding community, perhaps some transition taking place within the church. Yet often the signs of spiritual warfare are less obvious. The secular values of society shape habits of mind and heart that are utterly antagonistic toward God. For example, today's Christians too easily detach the virtue of love from its spiritual and biblical moorings, replacing it with an anti-Christian humanism that specializes in self-love.

In this light, endurance refers to the act of hanging on to one's most essential commitments, whereas patience refers to one's capacity to do so. Each reflects the sort of person who has been formed by difficult circumstances in order to respond favorably toward God in adversity. Both dispositions are rooted in joy, which like hope is disposed toward the future, where the costs of Christian existence bear their promised reward (see Jas 1:2-4). Paul's praise of this sort of believer presumes the active participation of the Spirit, whose good work yields this favorable fruit (compare Gal 5:21-22; 1 Thess 1:6). His concluding reference to joy may also presume his own apostolic influence (cf. Phil 1:25; 2:2; 4:1); his missionary ministry provides the context for the Spirit's work and fruit (compare 1 Cor 3--4). Thus the final phrase, joyfully (or "with joy"), may well embed a call that is critical to Paul's larger purposes: Reject the falsehoods of Paul's opponents and embrace the truth of his gospel in order to be formed by God's Spirit into a redeemed people (compare 2 Tim 2:8-10).Thanks Be to God (1:12)

The final participle, giving thanks, found in verse 12, returns Paul to the point where his prayer began (1:3), thereby fashioning a literary inclusio, which "includes" everything mentioned in between as reason to be thankful. Especially since Paul repeats his confession that God is Father, the reader senses his confidence that his concerns for the Colossian congregation will be addressed by a concerned God. If the first thanksgiving remembers God's faithful work on their behalf, this final thanksgiving invokes God's continuing work, which promises to bring to fullness the work of grace the gospel has begun.

Paul's prayers are rich in theological treasure, and this one is no exception. Those who teach Colossians will surely want to mine the themes Paul so simply and elegantly introduces here. Before Paul talks about God, he first talks to God as a personal, covenant-keeping Savior. Thanksgiving for and confidence in God's grace provide the theological foundation for prayer. Given society's tendency toward self-interest and modernity's emphasis on self-sufficiency, we believers need constant reminders that prayer allows us to express our core conviction that God is faithful. And it is in the context of worship, within our various expressions of thanksgiving, that the congregation of believers is empowered to be for and with others in prayer.

The second half of verse 12 is transitional. The words share and inheritance link Paul's thanksgiving (1:3-12) to his confession of Christian faith (1:13-23). These two words are often found together in the Old Testament to describe the distribution of the Promised Land among the tribes of Israel (e.g., Deut 32:9). In this context, land is a metaphor or type of God's salvation. Like salvation, land is a good gift given by God to the faith community. In fact, to occupy the land of God's promise was to experience God's salvation and to know with certainty that the Lord is a promise-keeper. Now Paul locates the saints (compare 1:2) in a new promised land, the kingdom of light. As before, the people of God are led there by divine grace; for it is the Father who has qualified the saints for entrance into the kingdom (v. 13). The aorist tense of this verb suggests that God has already made a positive verdict about the believing community. The saints have, in effect, already been granted entrance into the kingdom, since they are "in Christ" and God's Son already rules there.

Previous commentary:
Paul's Greeting

Next commentary:
The Foundation of Faith: God's Grace in Christ

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

Bible Gateway Recommendations

A Way To Pray
Retail: $6.00
Our Price: $5.49
Save: $0.51 (9%)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible
Retail: $39.95
Our Price: $19.99
Save: $19.96 (50%)
4.0 of 5.0 stars
Parallel Commentary on the Psalms
Retail: $29.99
Our Price: $19.99
Save: $10.00 (33%)
4.5 of 5.0 stars
View more titles