Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother.
To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
Colossians 1:1-2 ESV
Like all of Paul’s letters, the opening greeting is full of introductory concepts and phrases for us to analyze. Paul is going to give us a brief description of himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus, and then he will describe the recipients of this letter. Each description of the Colossians (apart from their being in Colossae) should also be true of all believers. If we truly believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, it will transform who we are. We cannot believe in Christ and not have our identity shaped and molded by Him.
PAUL & TIMOTHY // VERSE 1
In the traditional style of an ancient epistle, the author of the letter is stated first. As discussed in the background on Colossians, we do in fact believe that Paul wrote this epistle, instead of someone else writing under the pseudonym of Paul. In Acts, we read about Paul (called Saul) actively seeking to destroy the Christian church by imprisoning believers. Nevertheless, Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and called Paul to be an apostle to the Gentiles. The term “apostle” is peppered throughout the New Testament, yet few know what to make of the title. Apostle is the noun form for the Greek verb “to send”, so apostle means “sent one” or “one who is sent.” Therefore, an apostle is a messenger or a herald. In the context of the New Testament, Jesus’ disciples are first called by the title in Matthew 10. In that chapter, Jesus sends out the twelve on a short term mission, and in verse two, Matthew calls them apostles. Yet from the greater context of Scripture, we can conclude that the word “apostle” is primarily used in two ways. First, through the Great Commission, Jesus has sent out all believers on a permanent mission for His kingdom. 1 Thessalonians 2:6 seems to be a usage of apostle in the broader sense because it likely refers to Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus. Second, the more common usage of apostle is in its specific and official nature, which is to describe individuals who were directly and personally appointed by Jesus. This is the sense in which Paul uses the word now (and within all of his letter openings). He uses the title to its maximum weight so that the Colossians might take great value in the wisdom that Paul is giving them through the Spirit.
If an apostle is essentially a messenger, then we must wonder from whom the message is coming. This is why Paul states that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus. Paul’s news, the whole reason for him being sent out, comes from Jesus. From the rest of this letter (and the New Testament), we know that Jesus was born from His mother, who was a virgin, lived a life without sin, and claimed that He was God. Eventually, He was murdered for saying that He was God. He then resurrected from the grave to prove that He was God, ascended to heaven, and promised to come back. If all of that is true about Jesus (meaning that He really is alive and is God), then it is of the utmost importance for us to hear what He says. As an apostle of Jesus, Paul is a bringer of Jesus’ message. This is why we honor the words of Paul because he is representing Jesus.
Consider Paul’s reason for being an apostle of Christ: “by the will of God.” A quick read through the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts will testify that Paul did not want to become a Christian. Instead, Paul was determined to destroy the church at all costs. Despite his best efforts at stopping Christianity, God turned Paul into one of its greatest proponents. I love what William Barclay says about this thought: “Here, right at the outset of the letter, is the whole doctrine of grace. A man is not what he has made himself, but what God has made him. There is no such thing as a self-made man; there are only men whom God has made, and men who have refused to allow God to make them” (123).
Next, Paul introduces one of his dearest companions: Timothy. Note that Timothy does not have the official status of an apostle but rather is called a brother, a valued member of the church and of Paul’s ministry team. Timothy is mentioned in many other letters of Paul (like Philippians) and in the book of Acts, but Paul’s two letters to the young man are the most informative of their relationship. Paul calls Timothy his true son in the faith, and because of the intimacy present in the two letters, we can conclude that Timothy was one of Paul’s closest disciples.
BROTHERS IN CHRIST // VERSE 2
In the customary form of epistles, the designated recipients followed the listing of the author. Here Paul lists four designations by which we may know who this letter is going to.
First, Paul calls them saints. The word “saint” literally means “holy ones.” All Christians are saints. All believers are holy ones before God. Because God alone is truly holy (unique, set apart, and other), He makes His people holy (that is, set apart exclusively for His purpose and usage). Thus, calling ourselves saints is not meant to imply a greater sense of morality than the rest of the world (though that should be a fruit of being God’s people); instead, we use the word to remind ourselves that we are not our own. As saints, our lives now belong exclusively to God and for the expansion of His kingdom. Therefore, do we live like saints? Do we live our lives with Christ’s glory the supreme focus and aim, or is Christianity merely the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae that is our American dream?
‘Saint’ is, to modern ears, misleading, for the Hebrew and Greek words are concerned less with any excellence of character (however much that may be implied as a result) than with the commitments and loyalties of the Church to the God who had made her his own (Moule, 45).
Second, Paul calls the recipients faithful brothers. Referring to Christians as brothers is quite common within the New Testament. Timothy was called a brother in verse one, after all. Though most English translations render the word as “brothers”, the Greek can signify both brothers and sisters. Here, Greek is quite similar to Spanish. The word “hermano” means brother in Spanish, while sister is “hermana.” Multiple sisters are called “hermanas,” but multiple brothers, or brothers and sisters, are called “hermanos.” Likewise, Paul can be referring to both brothers and sisters within this verse. Douglas Moo’s explanation of the significance of calling one another brothers is very helpful: “Because this language is so common in the New Testament, we can easily overlook its significance. It reminds us that we are members of the same family and that we should adopt the attitudes and actions necessary to maintain our familial unity” (76-77). Thus, though family relationships by blood are important, believers are united by the blood of Christ, which runs much deeper than physical familial ties. A gathering of Christians is a gathering of people who might have nothing in common apart from the work of Christ in their lives, yet that is enough for the utmost unity.
While calling believers “brothers” might be a common practice of the New Testament, describing them as faithful is not. That is not to say that Christians are not faithful. The only true sign of our salvation is that we continue to the end in repentance and faithfulness; however, in no other letter does Paul open with calling the recipients faithful. It seems likely that because the Colossians were facing a highly destructive heresy, Paul is emphasizing his confidence that they will remain faithful through the flood of false teaching. Of course, the apostle’s confidence is not founded upon the innate faithfulness of the Colossians. If that was the case, he would not have written them a letter. Instead, Paul is able to call them faithful because he knew that God is faithful. The faithfulness of the Colossians was predicated upon the faithfulness of God. Yet this truth is not limited to the Colossian church. No Christian is able, through our own work, to continue faithfully in Christ. If we were first saved by grace, we will continue to be saved by grace, and we will eventually be completely and finally saved by grace. God originally did the work in our first moment of salvation (also known as justification). God continues to do the work in our daily salvation of becoming more like Him (known as sanctification). Finally, God will complete the work of our salvation (called glorification). Philippians 1:6 and Romans 8:29-30 are glorious bringers of this truth.
Third, Paul states that the Colossians are “in Christ.” This is one of Paul’s favorite phrases throughout his letters. In Christ refers to the spiritual position of believers. Part of the great significance of being in Christ is predicated upon our position before being in Christ. In Ephesians 2:5, Paul states that we were once “dead in our trespasses.” We were spiritually dead in our sin, but by the grace of God, we have now been made alive in Christ. In fact, the entire letter of Ephesians is a marvelous thesis on being alive in Christ. Within that letter, Paul lists some of the effects of being in Christ. In Christ, we blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3). In Christ, we were chosen “before the foundation of the world” to be holy and blameless (1:4). In Christ, we are adopted as sons and daughters (1:5). In Christ, we have redemption by His blood, forgiveness of our sins, and a wealth of grace (1:7). In Christ, we have wisdom and insight, which make “known to us the mystery” of God’s will (1:8-9). In Christ, we have an inheritance (1:11). In Christ, we have the confidence that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (1:12). In Christ, we have heard the gospel proclaimed and “believed in him” (1:13). In Christ, we have been “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (1:13-14). And those are only from the first fourteen verses of Ephesians. The entire fruit of the work of the gospel in our lives is found within those two simple words: in Christ. Our justification, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification are all found only in Christ.
Finally, Paul says that his audience is at Colossae. As mentioned in the background of Colossians, the city of Colossae was a once great town in the Lycus Valley, where it was only one hundred miles east
of Ephesus. However, the prominent prosperity of the neighboring city of Laodicea had virtually eclipsed Colossae. The believers in Colossae were most likely predominantly Gentiles, yet there was a significant population of Jews within the city. Nevertheless, notice that for Paul, physical location is secondary to spiritual location. Understanding that these believers were in Colossae is important because with our physical location comes many circumstances that are unique to that culture. For instance, the presence of the Christ-devaluing heresy in Colossae urged Paul to put to words the glorious nature of Christ within the letter of Colossians. So physical location is important, but we must always remember that we are first in Christ before we are in our particular city.
A Christian always moves in two spheres. He is in a certain place in this world, but he is also in Christ. He lives in two dimensions. He lives in this world whose duties he does not treat lightly; but above and beyond that he lives in Christ. In this world he may move from place to place; but wherever he is, he is in Christ. That is why outward circumstances make little difference to the Christian; his peace and his joy are no dependent on them. That is why he will do any job with all his heart. It may be menial, unpleasant, painful, it may be far less distinguished that he might expect to have; its rewards may be small and its praise non-existent; nevertheless the Christian will do it diligently, uncomplainingly and cheerfully, for he is in Christ and does all things as to the Lord. We are all in our own Colosse, but we are all in Christ, and it is Christ who sets the tone of our living (Barclay, 104-105).
GRACE & PEACE // VERSE 2
This is the traditional blessing found within almost all of Paul’s letters. This benediction combines the joy of the new covenant in Christ with the aim of the old covenants found in the Old Testament: grace and peace.
Grace is the defining characteristic of the Christian life. Ask any other religious person why they will reach heaven (or paradise or nirvana, whatever you wish to call it), and they will tell you it is because of good works. Ultimately, their good deeds outweigh their evil deeds, whether through charities or rituals and so they have earned their reward. Only the Christian will state with one hundred percent confidence that he or she will reach heaven but through no good work of his or her own. Instead, Christians will tell you that they are only deserving of hell, eternal judgment for offending an eternal God, but that the righteous works of Another have been imputed onto them, forgiving their evil deeds by paying the penalty Himself and placing His righteousness upon them. This is the grace of Jesus Christ, the only hope for escaping the just wrath of God. Because of this grace in Christ, the Christian no longer is at enmity with God but instead is now able to call Him Father. This restored relationship with the Father is the peace that the Old Testament longed to see realized. We are no longer enemies of God; rather, in Christ, we are His beloved children and coheirs with Christ!
Paul writes this greeting with confidence in both his and the Colossians’ identity in Christ. He knows that God called to be an apostle by His will. The apostle is also at peace that the Colossians will remain faithful family and saints in Christ, even with the pressures of false teaching surrounding them. Though we often do not think in these terms, we are just as surrounded by heresy today than the Colossians were. The culture around us is constantly calling for us to worship other gods, to follow other philosophies, to be more religiously observant. Whether it is the worship of our jobs, spouses, children, food, or entertainment, there are more than enough gods to distract us from worshipping Christ fully. Too often, we believe that as long as we continue to serve Jesus that we are still “good” with God. However, if saints are wholly reserved for the purposes of God, then even giving God a significant piece of our life means that we are not saints! Seventy-five percent of a pie is still not the entire desert. For the true believer, Jesus is our life, not a part or aspect of it. Or we can say it like this: once we are in Christ, there exists nothing of ourselves that is outside of Christ. Jesus will be everything to you, or He will be nothing.