Colossians Part One Deep Dive

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LETTERS FROM AN INMATE | HANNAH WHITE

Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon – what do all these letters have in common? They were written by a prisoner.

Paul wrote the letters scholars now refer to as ‘the Prison Epistles’ whilst he was on house arrest in Rome for two years. By this point, he had already endured imprisonment in Caesarea, an appeal, an extremely dangerous voyage by sea and a subsequent shipwreck followed by a rescue… only to finally make it to Rome and be imprisoned again under house arrest! It is believed that during this time awaiting trial, Paul was free to write and to be visited by guests, but was forbidden from venturing out. Needless to say, he probably welcomed the rest!

However, being the zealous, impassioned, fervent, motivated, expert-church-planter and sold-out-for-the-gospel man that we know and love, Paul used this time to write letters to the churches that he was being kept from visiting. Four of these letters are known today: the Prison Epistles.


SAME, SAME, BUT DIFFERENT

As can be expected, these four letters – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon – all possess a number of similarities. We can label these as synoptic letters.

The term ‘synoptic’ is a blend from the Greek words σύν (‘together’) and ὄψις (‘view’), referring to observations that give an expansive view of a subject at a particular time. It is often used in reference to the Synoptic Chronicles as well as the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jump into the final Deep Dive of Mark, Why Does It Feel Like I’ve Read This All Before? for further information on the synoptic gospels.

The Prison Epistles contain many parallels. They were all written by the same person, at about the same time. Paul drew from his experiences as a prisoner and let his reality deeply inspire and influence his letters. The letters were also all delivered by his companion, Tychicus, and written to churches and individuals (Philemon) in relatively close physical proximity, as can be seen on this map:

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Figure 1

Colossians is often linked so closely with Ephesians that scholars have called them the ‘twin epistles.’ It has been discovered that 26.5% of Ephesians is paralleled in Colossians, whereas 34% of Colossians is found within Ephesians! The main difference between Colossians and Ephesians is that Ephesians was written as an encouragement and a teaching tool, unprovoked by any particular ‘scandal’ or moral dilemma, whereas Colossians was written more as an ‘emergency response’ to what Paul had heard about the church at Colossae. So whilst Ephesians and Colossians do undeniably have stylistic similarities, Colossians is unique in its polemical undertones of specificity and urgency towards the church at Colossae and its struggles with heresy.


PAUL, A CAPTIVE OF CHRIST

One of my favourite unifying themes among the prison epistles is Paul’s language around his imprisonment. In each letter, he refers to himself not as a prisoner of Rome or as a prisoner of the state, but as a prisoner of Christ.

In Ephesians 3:1, he identifies himself, ‘For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles’. In Philippians 3:12 Paul states that he is apprehended of Christ, and in the opening statements of Philemon he introduces himself as ‘Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ’.

Paul requests the church in Colossae to pray for him, writing ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful, as you pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains’. (Colossians 4:3)

What a concept! Paul completely rejects the thought that he is a captive of men, but rather is propelled by the revelation that He is captive to Christ and a prisoner of the faith. This conviction is the undercurrent of each of Paul’s prison letters, injecting his message with a hope, vision, purpose and joy that completely juxtaposes his physical reality. I just love Paul – eyes fixed on Jesus, heart set on Heaven.

further reading

The Epistle to the Ephesians: It’s Authorship, Origin and Purpose by C. Leslie Mitton, 1951.

recommended

 

The Tyndale Commentary Series

Colossians part one

Ecclesiastics part two

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