Wednesday of Week 22 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Colossians 1:1-8

Today we begin reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in the city of Colossae, on the west coast of what is now Turkey. The letters to the Christians of Ephesus and Colossae (both in the Roman Province of Asia, now part of western Turkey) and the letter to Philemon are all closely related. All three were written while Paul was under arrest in Rome.

Several hundred years before Paul’s day, Colossae had been a leading city in Asia Minor. It was located on the Lycus River and on the great east-west trade route leading from Ephesus, on the Aegean Sea, to the Euphrates River. By the first century AD (when this Letter was written) Colossae had been diminished to a second-rate market town and had been surpassed long ago in power and importance by the neighbouring towns of Laodicea and Hierapolis, both of which are cited in the Letter (see Col 4:13).

What gave Colossae importance in New Testament terms, however, was the fact that, during Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus, Epaphras had been converted and had carried the Gospel to Colossae. The young church that resulted then became the target of heretical attack, which led to Epaphras’ visit to Paul in Rome and ultimately to the writing of the Colossian letter.

The danger at Colossae was due to basically Jewish speculations the Christians had taken up about the heavenly or cosmic powers. These were the powers thought to be responsible for the regular movement of the cosmos, and the speculations about them, much influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, attached an importance to these powers that threatened the supremacy of Christ. Paul’s point is not to deny these powers but to show that Christos Kyrios, Christ the Lord, has established a new order of things and he now governs the cosmos.

According to notes from the Jerusalem Bible and the New International Version Study Bible:

“Paul’s purpose is to refute this Colossian heresy. To accomplish this goal, he exalts Christ as the very image of God (1:15), the Creator (1:16), the pre-existent Sustainer of all things (1:17), the Head of the church (1:18), the First to be resurrected (1:18), the Fullness of deity in body form (1:19; 2:9) and the Reconciler (1:20-22). Christ is completely adequate. We “have been given fullness in Christ” (2:10).”

Colossians is a relatively short letter and contains much material also found in the longer letter to the Ephesians.

Following the custom of putting the writer’s name at the beginning of a letter, Paul introduces himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and his fellow-evangeliser, Timothy. Right from the opening words he reveals how Christ-centred he is. In this relatively short letter, he uses the title ‘Christ’ 26 times and the title ‘Lord’ (referring to Christ) 7 times.

Timothy is also mentioned in 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and Philemon, but Paul is really the sole author of the letter, as indicated by his constant use of ‘I’. In fact, at the end of the letter he says it has been penned in his own hand (4:18).

The letter is addressed to “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” wishing them grace and peace from God, the Father of all.

Paul frequently calls the members of Christian communities ‘holy ones’. It is a term which includes the Old Testament idea of the people of God, but here also expresses a relationship with Christ. They have been called by God to union with Christ and have experienced the spiritual benefits of this union. The awareness of it helps them to be “faithful brothers and sisters in Christ”, i.e. dedicated to working together on the tasks implied in their calling. And Paul mentions their spiritual union “in Christ” no less than 13 times in the course of the Letter.

Following the opening greeting there is an expression of thanksgiving and a prayer which forms the rest of the reading and will be continued in tomorrow’s reading.

Recalling his prayers for them and the deeply satisfying account of them he has received, Paul congratulates the Colossians upon their acceptance of Christ and their faithful efforts to live his Gospel. For their encouragement he mentions the success of the Gospel in other places, and assures them that his knowledge of their community is accurate since he has been in personal contact with Epaphras, their presumed founder.

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.

Every one of Paul’s letters, except that to the Galatians, begins with thanks or praise. The possible reason for Galatians being an exception is that Paul was quite disturbed by developments there. In Colossians, thanks is an important theme, repeated a number of times. The Letters, too, do not thank humans for their faith and love, but rather God, who is the source of these virtues. And, although Paul usually begins with words of thanks and praise, the words of concern or criticism will usually follow later on.

We might note also that thanks is given for the manifestations of faith, hope and love that the Colossians so clearly display. The three great Christian virtues of faith, love and hope appear also in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians and Hebrews.

And that hope of a future life without end has come to them through “the word of the truth”, the Gospel, and has come to them in the same way that it is producing fruit and growing all over the world. This Christian hope is not mere wishful thinking but based on firm assurances that what is believed will be realised.

Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world…

“The whole world” – even if we mean the known world of the Mediterranean, is still somewhat of an exaggeration. But it does dramatise the rapid and remarkable spread and acceptance of the Gospel into nearly every corner of the Roman Empire within 30 years of Pentecost. In refuting the charge of the false teachers, Paul will insist that the Christian faith is not merely confined to Colossae or the region but is ‘worldwide’. Paul knew that because he travelled so much, but many of those he is writing to would have very little contact with anyone outside their own immediate environment.

And their strong Christian faith is something they learnt from Epaphras who is:

…our beloved fellow servant…a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf.

It was he who told Paul about their love in the Spirit.

Epaphras was a native and probably the founder of the Colossian church, but also evangelised in the nearby towns of Laodicea and Hierapolis (although the Book of Revelation has some hard words for the Christians of Laodicea). Paul was clearly fond of Epaphras and admired him, calling him a “fellow prisoner” (Phil 23), his dear fellow servant and a faithful minister of Christ.

Epaphras was the one who told Paul at Rome about problems in the Colossian church and thereby stimulated him to write this letter. His name, a shortened form of Epaphroditus (derived from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love), suggests he was a convert from paganism – but he is not the Epaphroditus mentioned in the Letter to the Philippians.

Let us today give thanks for the faith we have received and also to those through whom we have received it and who have helped to enrich it over the years. As well, we might also consider how many people’s faith has been enriched by their coming in contact with us, and how much more we could do in this regard.

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