Saint Paul and the Colossians

Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians is a rather short letter and thankfully without any sign of the politics that had arisen in several of the other churches of the time, such as those of the Galatians and the Corinthians, because of other Christian missionaries presenting a rivalry to Paul’s message with their attempts to initiate the new gentile Christians into Judaism. But the ghost of that problem still haunts even this letter, for Paul in the second chapter reminds the people that physical circumcision is not necessary for those who are spiritually circumcisedColossae (of Phrygia in Asia Minor) was not a church built by Paul, although he seems to have corresponded with her by letter. He seems to have been familiar with them, for he mentions a Colossian catechist (and possible priest) called Epaphras who had spoken to Paul about the Colossians.

We could begin with the nice little christological prayer-poem that is inserted in the first chapter, which provides a short catechesis about the Person of Christ:

“Our prayer is, that you may be filled with that closer knowledge of God’s Will which brings all wisdom and all spiritual insight with it. May you live as befits His servants, waiting continually on His pleasure; may the closer knowledge of God bring you fruitfulness and growth in all good. May you be inspired, as His glorious power can inspire you, with full strength to be patient and to endure; to endure joyfully, thanking God our Father for making us fit to share the light which saints inherit, for rescuing us from the power of darkness, and transferring us to the kingdom of His beloved Son. In the Son of God, in His blood, we find the redemption that sets us free from our sins. He is the true likeness of the God we cannot see; His is that first birth which precedes every act of creation. Yes, in Him all created things took their being, heavenly and earthly, visible and invisible; what are thrones and dominions, what are princedoms and powers? They were all created through Him and in Him; He takes precedency of all, and in Him all subsist. He too is that Head whose body is the Church; it begins with Him, since His was the first birth out of death; thus in every way the primacy was to become His. It was God’s good pleasure to let all completeness dwell in Him, and through Him to win back all things, whether on earth or in heaven, into union with Himself, making peace with them through His blood, shed on the cross.

Colossians, 1: 9-20

All of this means incorporation into Christ and through Christ into God implies that we must be thoroughly grounded in the Faith. And Paul mentions the rather Catholic idea of ‘offering up’ our sufferings to God: 

“Even as I write, I am glad of my sufferings on your behalf, as, in this mortal frame of mine, I help to pay off the debt which the afflictions of Christ still leave to be paid, for the sake of his body, the Church.”

Colossians, 1: 24

And all this in the first chapter is Paul’s statement of faith, and his proclamation of Christ, the prelude to his demand for perfection among the Christians, to the ordering of their lives according to the traditions they had received. The Faith is rather simple, he says, and they shouldn’t allow it to be complicated by the sophisms of human traditions. At this point, Paul plays the poet again, as he describes how the Church has moved beyond the practices of the Law of Moses – physical circumcision, the liturgical festivals of the Hebrews, etc. are all superceded by Christ and so are meaningless:

“In Christ the whole plenitude of Deity is embodied, and dwells in Him, and it is in Him that you find your completion; He is the fountain head from which all dominion and power proceed. In Him you have been circumcised with a circumcision that was not man’s handiwork. It was effected, not by despoiling the natural body, but by Christ’s circumcision; you, by baptism, have been united with His burial, united, too, with His resurrection, through your faith in that exercise of power by which God raised Him from the dead. And in giving life to Him, He gave life to you too, when you lay dead in your sins, with nature all uncircumcised in you. He condoned all your sins; cancelled the deed which excluded us, the decree made to our prejudice, swept it out of the way, by nailing it to the cross; and the dominions and powers he robbed of their prey, put them to an open shame, led them away in triumph, through Him. So no one must be allowed to take you to task over what you eat or drink, or in the matter of observing feasts, and new moons, and sabbath days; all these were but shadows cast by future events, the reality is found in Christ.

Colossians, 2: 9-15

God, in Christ, has cancelled out the Hebrew Law for non-Jewish gentiles, who had been excluded by it from the promises that He had made to mankind, thus robbing the dominions and powers (read devils) of these gentiles souls. So, let whoever wants to observe the Jewish feasts and fasts, the various minutiae of the prescriptions of the Law of Moses and so on, but the non-Jewish Colossian Christians are not to allow such things to be imposed upon them. The Christian is risen with Christ, above these earthly-minded customs and traditions, and they must also be beyond the sins that are so common to the pagan society surrounding them, instead putting on Christ as a garment, taking on His character, giving birth to a unity that transcends race and kind:

“You must deaden, then, those passions in you which belong to earth, fornication and impurity, lust and evil desire, and that love of money which is an idolatry. These are what bring down God’s vengeance on the unbelievers, and such was your own behaviour, too, while you lived among them. Now it is your turn to have done with it all, resentment, anger, spite, insults, foul-mouthed utterance; and do not tell lies at one another’s expense. You must be quit of the old self, and the habits that went with it; you must be clothed in the new self, that is being refitted all the time for closer knowledge, so that the image of the God who created it is its pattern. Here is no more Gentile and Jew, no more circumcised and uncircumcised; no one is barbarian, or Scythian, no one is slave or free man; there is nothing but Christ in any of us. You are God’s chosen people, holy and well beloved; the livery you wear must be tender compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; you must bear with one another’s faults, be generous to each other, where somebody has given grounds for complaint; the Lord’s generosity to you must be the model of yours. And, to crown all this, charity; that is the bond which makes us perfect.”

Colossians 3: 5-14

Also in chapter three come the instructions to families, to spouses and children, that are so much a part of catechesis even today, but are certainly controversial in current society, because of the language used in the relationship between spouses. But the Church was always far ahead of its time in the mutual affection that she demanded of Christians spouses. Mutual affection. Husbands, love your wives; wives love your husbands… and then, there is the instruction for slaves and masters. Faced with a social situation, such as that of the time, Paul was asking his Christians to be the most virtuous, most diligent that they could be.

“Wives must be submissive to their husbands, as the service of the Lord demands; and you, husbands, treat your wives lovingly, do not grow harsh with them. Children must be obedient to their parents in every way; it is a gracious sign of serving the Lord; and you, parents, must not rouse your children to resentment, or you will break their spirits. You who are slaves, give your human masters full obedience, not with that show of service which tries to win human favour, but single-mindedly, in fear of the Lord. Work at all your tasks with a will, reminding yourselves that you are doing it for the Lord, not for men; and you may be sure that the Lord will give the portion he has allotted you in return”

Colossians 3: 18-24

Far from approving of slavery here, Paul was simply acknowledging an existing social structure and moving the centre of interest towards Christ, and this is a rather christo-centric letter from the beginning to the end. Paul ends this section by saying that, after everybody has behaved well, he will be rewarded appropriately by God, for God has no human preferences when he deals out judgement for good and evil. Meanwhile, we are to be prayerful, thankful in prayer, awaiting opportunities to spread the Gospel, while being prudent and respectful about it: 

“Be prudent in your behaviour towards those who are not of your company; it is an opportunity you must eagerly grasp. Your manner of speaking must always be gracious, with an edge of liveliness, ready to give each questioner the right answer.”

Colossians 4: 5-6

The last part of the letter draws various influential characters of the Church of that time together in a delightful way. There is Tychicus, who was mentioned also in the letter to the Ephesians; there is Onesimus, who was that slave of Philemon, regarding whom Paul wrote that short letter to Philemon; there is John Mark, cousin of Saint Barnabas, whom we know as Saint Mark, the author of one of our Gospels; and there is Saint Luke, here called the Physician, close friend of Paul’s and known to us through his Gospel and his Acts of the Apostles. And that’s the end of this review.

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