Lesson 4 of 5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Colossians


At its beginning and conclusion, Colossians identifies Paul as its author (1:1; 4:18). The extensive listing of personal names indicates that the author knew several members of the Christian community in Colossae (4:7-17). Many of these names are also represented in the letter to Philemon, linking the two letters together (see Philemon 1-2, 23-24). The internal relationship of the two letters suggests to many that both have come from the hand of Paul. However, the Colossian letter is often interpreted as reflecting a later time in the church, representing a theology that is different from the seven undisputed letters of Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon). The decision on the question of the authorship of Colossians rests with each interpreter, and a definitive answer cannot be given. This does not, however, detract from the authority of the letter. The letter is written with complete integrity, addressing critical issues for the Christian community in Colossae for its time. The legacy of Colossians lives on, addressing critical issues for the church through the centuries and proclaiming the sovereignty of Jesus Christ’s lordship over all powers present in the world.

Christ over the rulers and powers

The terms rulers and powers (the latter can also be rendered as authorities) occurs three times in Colossians (1:16; 2:10, 15). The first occurrence is introduced in the Christ hymn or confession of 1:15-20. These verses proclaim that everything in the entire universe is under the lordship of Christ, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him” (1:16). From the Christ hymn or confession to the center of the letter we are drawn into the proclamation of Christ’s sovereignty and the relationship of Christ’s lordship to the life of faith: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority” (2:9-10). The fullness of Christ’s deity and lordship over all is brought to completion through the fullness of life in him. This fullness of life is manifested in our identity in Christ’s death and resurrection (2:12-13), giving us the assurance of Christ’s victory: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [Christ’s death and resurrection]” (2:15). The triumphal arch through which vanquished armies were paraded by the victors is the image behind these words, an image well known in the Roman world.

The family of faith under Christ’s lordship

The relationships of wives and husbands (3:18-19), children and parents (3:20-21), slaves (or servants) and masters (3:22-4:1) have been transformed in light of the sovereignty of Christ’s lordship in the universe (1:13-20). These two sections (1:13-20 and 3:18-4:1) stand in a complementary literary relationship within the concentric-circle structure of the letter. The two sections are linked together insofar as both reflect oral and literary expressions that were previously known in the community. The first section proclaims God’s deliverance from the powers of darkness in his beloved Son (1:13-14) and incorporates a hymn or confession of Christ (1:15-20). The complementary section consists of common household rules for living in community (3:18-4:1). What is unique to the Colossian letter is how these two sections interpret one another theologically. Because of Christ’s sovereignty throughout the universe, as proclaimed in the introduction to the Christ hymn and confession (1:13-14) and in the hymn and confession itself (1:15-20), all human relationships–wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters–have been transformed under Christ’s lordship. Believers are free now to live as loving servants or slaves of one another, as Christ is servant or slave of all and Lord of all.

Mystery religions and the mystery of Christ

The word mystery occurs four times in Colossians (1:26, 27; 2:2; 4:3). Various mystery cults found their home and practice in cities of the Mediterranean world; this was certainly true in the Lycus River Valley where Colossae was located. Various rituals and forms of secret knowledge were introduced and imparted to the initiates to link them with gods and goddesses that would assure their souls of salvation from this world of darkness upon the death of their bodies. Colossians offers a direct response to such thought and practice, proclaiming the mystery of Christ’s lordship over all the powers and deities in the universe, and expressing a word of hope for all people enslaved to the mysteries of the time. According to God’s commission, Paul was called “to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints” (1:25-26). This revelation of God has made known to all people “the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:27). The knowledge of God’s mystery is not an elitist system of special knowledge, but God’s revelatory word made known for all in “Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2-3). As Paul writes this letter from prison, his proclamation of the gospel has not been hindered, and he writes with the hope “that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should” (4:3-4).