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New Testament | Colossians | Summary

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Summary

  • A thanksgiving section compliments the Colossian Christ-believers on their faith, hope, and love, central virtues in early Christian thought.
  • A short hymn praises Christ and explains his significance for the ekklēsia (church community) and for creation as a whole.
  • The author angrily warns that opponents of his own mission are presenting "philosophy and empty deceit" that is not divine or linked to Christ (Colossians 2:8).
  • Because the Colossians share in Christ's triumph, they do not need to engage in the sorts of behaviors the new teachers propose, which include observing festivals and Sabbaths and obeying dietary laws, but they should "set [their] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Colossians 3:2).
  • Wives, husbands, children, parents, slaves, and masters are all advised to treat each other with respect and deference.
  • The author reminds the Christ-believers that prayer is an important part of their community life, and he requests that they pray for him and his mission.
  • The author requests that once the Colossians have read the letter they circulate it to believers in the nearby city of Laodicea, to spread its message.

Analysis

This letter presents a distinctive Christology, or explanation of what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ (literally "anointed one" and a translation of the Hebrew "Messiah"). The hymnic language of Colossians 1:15–20 might reflect early Christian liturgical music, especially given that the author later instructs his addressees to "sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God" (Colossians 3:16).

The content of the hymn identifies Christ as preexistent, present at the time of creation and active in the process of creating the universe and everything in it. New Testament scholars and theologians typically consider this kind of "high" Christology to be a development that did not occur until the end of the 1st century CE. The Christology of this letter to the Colossians therefore suggests that it was probably not written by the historical Paul, who composed most of his letters in the 40s and 50s CE.

Another striking element of the view of Christ in this letter is that the author identifies Christ as the head of the church (Colossians 1:18; 2:19). Letters of Paul that are usually considered authentic, for example 1 Corinthians, also use the body as a metaphor to describe the community of Christ-believers, but the emphasis in those passages is on all members of the body working cooperatively. The Colossians image of Christ as head introduces a hierarchical component and makes explicit an uneven power dynamic between Christ and those who follow him.

The ekklēsia (church community) described in this letter is centered on Christ but also includes households that are structured much like traditional Greco-Roman households in the 1st-century Mediterranean world. Colossians 3:18–4:1 offers what looks like a brief household code, a set of instructions for how various members of a family ought to treat each other. Hierarchical relationships between men and women, parents and children, and masters and slaves are to be preserved, and the author sees this order as "fitting" for Christ-believers. This view of household dynamics is somewhat different from the radical egalitarianism found in some of the Pauline Letters that scholars typically recognize as authentic.

The letter has a distinctive view of salvation as well, which reflects the diversity of early Christian thought about how and when salvation happens. The author appears to believe that the Christ-believers in Colossae are already participating in a full version of salvation; this view can be contrasted with some Pauline teachings that claim Christ-believers will not experience full participation until the resurrection, when their earthly lives have ended. In Colossians, the body does not seem to be an obstacle. By becoming members of the community, the Colossians already have the kind of spiritual body that Paul elsewhere says will only happen in the resurrection.

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