The first two sections of Paul’s letter to the Colossians consists of his customary salutation (1:1-2) and the prayer of thanksgiving that he offers to God on behalf of the believers in the churches (1:3-23). These sections help set the agenda for the rest of the letter.
Paul continues the thanksgiving section (1:3-23) by informing the Colossians how he and Timothy specifically intercede for them in prayer. The initial success of the gospel in Colosse does not lull them into slackening their prayer efforts for the Colossians. Quite the reverse, it leads to even more intense prayer. They have continued to pray for them because of what God has already done for them and because of their faith and love (“for this reason,” 1:9). By sharing his petition on their behalf, Paul reacquaints them with their blessings, their obligations, and their potential in Christ.
Paul’s mention of the kingdom of the beloved Son in 1:13 leads to the poetic praise of Christ in 1:15-20. This section divides into two parts, each with its own theme: Christ is mediator of creation, victor over the powers, and Lord over all of God’s created order (1:15-17); and Christ is also Lord over God’s new order, the church, where one finds reconciliation (1:18-20). Every part of the created cosmos, visible and invisible, was created in, by, and for him; and every part will be touched by Christ’s reconciling work on the cross. Christ’s cosmos-encompassing supremacy undergirds the status and power of those who have been brought into his kingdom. The universal supremacy of Christ matches the universality of the gospel (1:6) and assures believers of the sufficiency of Christ.
Paul wants to restore the Colossians’ confidence in their hope and to arm them theologically against the glib arguments of those who sell short the Christians’ claims (2:4, 8) or vaunt their own superiority (2:16, 18). All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are to be found in Christ, and no beguiling pamphleteering by others should persuade them to look elsewhere. He also wants to show his care for them. Physically absent from them, he is present with them spiritually. He suffers for them (1:24); his commission is for them (1:25); and he struggles for them (2:1).
The middle section of the letter (2:6-4:6) is launched with a theme statement in 2:6-7. Belief that does not have an impact on one’s behavior is useless, and the theme statement connects faith to practice. On the faith side, the Colossians’ have received Christ Jesus as Lord and have been taught the faith. On the practice side, they need to continue to live in him and to be built up in him, becoming strengthened in their faith and overflowing with thankfulness. This theme statement is followed in 2:8 by the first specific warning against being deceived by a hollow and deceptive “philosophy” (cf. 2:4). Paul then establishes the all-sufficiency of Christ (2:9-15). His argument provides the theological underpinning for the direct rebuttal of the opponents in 2:16-23.
Paul moves from his assurance of Christ’s all-sufficiency and the humbling defeat of the powers and authorities through the cross to specific warnings against the “philosophy.” This direct polemic is the key passage for identifying the error threatening the Colossians. Paul repeats and reinforces his negative evaluation (see 2:8). It is “hollow” because it consists of “idle notions” (2:18); it is “deceptive” because it only has the appearance of wisdom and is incapable of producing what it promises (2:23). Its taboos depend on human-tradition (2:22) and on the elementary spirits (2:20). The new pieces of information about the “philosophy” contain obscure vocabulary that has confounded interpreters. Our difficult lies in trying to decide which of the many possible and plausible religious contexts best illuminate the meanings of these words.
Having argued that the Colossians have been set free from the powers, Paul now contends that they have been set free for living a life above moral reproach.
How domestic life should be ordered was not considered a trivial matter in the ancient world, and household management was a topic of discussion among philosophers. Christians probably reflected on this topic because of the widespread interest in household management and because the household was so vital to the life of the church. Since they affirmed that all believers had become equals in Christ, they were forced to deal with the question of how members of the family in various stations, such as masters, slaves, and freedmen, were to relate to one another in the household. They may also have desired to reverse popular opinion that Christians fomented social turmoil. The household rules show that Christians did not oppose the commonly shared moral norms of their culture concerning a well-ordered family life.
The final instructions in 4:2-6 divide into two units with two imperatives: “Devote yourselves to prayer” (4:2a) and, “Be wise in the way you act [lit., walk] toward outsiders” (4:5). Both pertain to the mission work. Paul wants the Colossians to pray that he will have an open door to speak and that they themselves seize every opportunity and know how to answer others. Both he and they are under a sense of “ought”: “how I must [dei] speak (4:4; NIV “as I should”)”; how you must [dei] answer” (4:6; NIV, omitted).