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Reviews | The Letter to the Colossians

The Letter to the Colossians

T. J. Barling

Paperback or e-book (ePub)

196 pages

The Letter to the Colossians

The Christadelphian review (from June 1973)

The Letter to the Colossians

READERS familiar with Brother T. J. Barling’s Letter to the Philippians, will welcome his new book, Letter to the Colossians, as a work both lucid and scholarly, and of value to both reader and student alike.

The work consists of five short studies followed by a commentary on the text. The studies form a background upon which the exposition that follows is well established in a Biblical setting, eschewing the philosophical approach. The problems affecting the Church are seen and their solution prescribed within the broad scope of the Apostle’s missionary work in Asia Minor.

There is a careful examination of Paul’s interest in the Colossian church, to determine why the letter was written, and an analysis of Paul’s reply in response to the appeal from Epaphras, who was himself concerned with the perplexing problems affecting the church he had founded. Epaphras had travelled to Rome to seek advice and judgement from the Apostle’s wide experience, wisdom and authority. Paul’s response was the composition and despatch of the letter which dealt with the practical problems affecting the brethren and sisters at Colossae. The ecclesia there had been exposed to hollow and delusive speculations, what the Apostle called “the rudiments of the world and the ordinances of men”. Whether ritualistic teaching be Judaistic or pagan, it was contrary to the freedom which both Jews and Gentiles had inherited in Christ Jesus.

The relationship between Colossians and its companion letter Ephesians is next considered and remarkable similarities revealed. Whatever the dependence of the letters upon each other, the teaching is clear in both, that of the divine ordering in the universe, that is to say, the glory of Christ in the Church.

The verse by verse commentary is clear and well documented as to its relationship to other Pauline epistles, and of practical value are the author’s introductory notes, which form both a précis and introduction to the text to be studied. Brother Barling makes very clear that there is a constant direction of the Colossian Church to the person of the Lord, to the total and unchallengeable supremacy of the Lord Jesus; a point of value both to the first century believers and to those of all ages. He examines the tremendous claims that Paul makes for Christ: “. . . the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation”. In this connection the Virgin Birth is seen as the event that is unique for all time; also that the Lord Jesus occupies in creation the position held by Israel among the nations in that he is “the first born”. Nevertheless stress is rightly laid on the fact, that the Lord bore a nature capable of portraying the divine image.

The author is aware that in this as in other Christological passages in Hebrews and John, current theological interpretation sees evidence for the pre-existence of Christ, that Jesus was in fact God incarnate and therefore behind all acts of creation. This heresy Brother Barling refutes with a wealth of Scriptural evidence, at the same time being careful to allow all the honour due to the Lord, yet respecting his humanity. His conclusion, based on Scripture, is that the pre-existence of the Lord was ideal and not real.

The main intent of the letter is to draw attention to false teaching and unawareness of the reality of Christ; to this Paul’s response is crystal clear: “As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him.” The Colossians, by the grace of God, were no longer under the dominion of Law or in bondage to the beggarly elements of the world, for had not the Lord on the cross discarded all cosmic powers making a spectacle of them openly? The Lord’s triumph was complete and Brother Barling examines this fact in detail and to good purpose, exposing the error and weakness of the Colossian heresy. In Paul’s mind the false beliefs among the brethren did not get to the root of the problem of human conduct, because of the inflated sense of their own importance governed by the fleshly mind.

Divine election, then, brings a moral obligation, and the call to a new life and its responsibilities is made clear. Paul does more than formulate a principle; he demonstrates its outworking in terms of personal relationship in a social structure. In the new life that is from above, husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves, all have obligations in the Lord. The touchstone of Christian behaviour for Paul as for his Lord, was simply, “Inasmuch, as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

The call to the believers at Colossae, elsewhere and at any time, is far more than an idealistic conception of the new life. It requires real effort of will to make sure that the living of the believer is Christward and manward.

With this in mind Brother Barling sees prayer as fundamental; for him “prayer is the generating station of the spiritual life”. So he rightly advocates vigilance and constancy in its use, at the same time deploring the use of prayer as a perfunctory and mechanical habit.

The author sees that the Lord in every circumstance fulfills the Apostle’s ideal, and if we, the modern readers, wish to approximate to it, we too must have the Lord constantly in mind. To this end the letter that Paul wrote to the Colossians is a powerful aid in both precept and practice. A consideration of Colossians is therefore of both value and help. The detailed study that Brother Barling presents reflects his thoughtful assessment of its value in the setting of the Pauline literature as an integral part of the word of God. The work is therefore commended as a valuable addition to the Truth’s literature, as a means of edifying and building us up in the knowledge of the grace of God.

GWYN DAVIES

The Testimony review (from October 1973)

The Letter to the Colossians

THERE ARE TWO sections to this book, the first being a series of short studies on the call of the Apostle Paul, a consideration of the ecclesial circumstances at Colossae, and the letters to both Colossae and Ephesus. The second section is in the form of a verse-by-verse commentary on the Epistle.

In the first chapter Brother Barling’s remarks on Colossians 1:16,17, might give the impression that he favoured the idea of the pre-existence of Christ. In quoting these verses he says, “In Colossians itself, we find not merely the thought that mankind has achieved its proper objective in Christ, but also the staggering notion that ‘in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’.” Surely if we understand that the purpose of God was known from the beginning, it is hardly a staggering notion that the whole of creation owes its being and purpose to Christ. Later in his commentary he says that Christ’s pre-existence was ideal and not real. “When we love the Lord”, he writes, “we are reluctant to deny him any honour which is his due. If we maintain that his pre-existence is ideal and not real, it is because of the considerations already mentioned and because other parts of Scripture help us to understand the meaning of Paul’s language”. The use of the word ideal could be somewhat confusing here. It is true of course that the word can mean “visionary”, but to most readers an ideal pre-existence implies something real. Brother Barling qualifies this by saying “We find no suggestion in the records of Jesus Christ’s birth that here was one already in being, while the Old Testament upholds an absolute and uncompromising monotheism”. As brother Roberts puts the matter in Christendom Astray when speaking of the glory which Jesus had before the world was, “It was a glory he had in the Father’s purpose, but in no other sense”.

In the section which forms a commentary, each verse or group of verses is prefaced by a summary paragraph and followed by a discussion on the development of the particular thought in the verse with references to the RSV, RV, NEB, and other renderings of the word or passage. These, of course, add to our appreciation of the exactness of the expressions used by Paul. A satisfying bonus to this study is the realisation that while these variations may add to our appreciation of the subtleties of the wording, the basic meaning is usually the same or very similar, so that we can appreciate that the AV, which was mainly used by our brethren and sisters of a century ago, was and still is quite adequate.

A good deal of emphasis is placed on the use of the word “we” in this Epistle (as in the Acts of the Apostles) and we may wonder if too much is being made of this. Conybeare in his notes on the Epistle to the Thessalonians says, “It is important to observe in this place, once for all, that Paul uses ‘we’ according to the idiom of many ancient writers where a modern writer would use ‘I’” and quotes from 1 Thessalonians 3:1,2 – “We thought it good to be left in Athens alone and sent Timotheus, our brother” – commenting that the decision would be his and his alone. “We”, is certainly more gracious and less egotistical than “I”.

Later, Brother Barling brings out a very important point in dealing with Colossians 1:11 when he writes, “The whole of creation is in some way a testimony to God’s glorious might. Man has come increasingly to understand how vast is the universe and to marvel (at the other end of the scale) at the structure of the atom. But God’s glory resides also in His Moral attributes.” The importance of character as distinct from intelligence or knowledge is something which is of vital importance both in the Truth and in the world. In speaking of Christ as the Head of the Body he writes, “Christ is the Head or Lord of the church, the term ekklesia here being used not of a local community, but of believers at large. The idea of Christ as the Head is commonly represented by commentators as a new concept, although the lordship of Christ over the church is so frequent a teaching as scarcely to call for illustration.” This is important when we realise that no other head is mentioned or recognised in the Scriptures, or any one group of believers given precedence over another. This is particularly important in the case of the pope who is regarded as the visible head of the Church with special pre-eminence given to the Church of Rome. We rather like the alternative wording that replaces the expression, “That in everything he might be pre-eminent” by “That his place might be first”.

Later, in dealing with Colossians 2:2,3 he speaks of the transmission of wisdom and knowledge laid up in the Lord Jesus and not in the mystery. This is also obvious from the AV “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. Incidentally The Emphatic Diaglot replaces the word mystery by secret which seems preferable. A secret can be revealed while a mystery can be that which is beyond reason.

In dealing with Colossians 3:5-11 Brother Barling brings out the dual nature of life, in the flesh and spiritually, “one with his Lord in heaven”. I think it needs to be emphasised that life is nevertheless a unity, and the fleshly works that have to be put to death are the excesses which Paul particularises. Life is a unit, and as the writer points out elsewhere asceticism is not the answer as it merely glorifies the fleshly mind. Incidentally, the obscure expression “covetousness which is idolatry”, is translated in The Emphatic Diaglot as, “inordinate lust which is idol worship”, which connects very well with what Brother Barling has to say about the cult of Aphrodite.

In considering some of the alternatives given by Brother Barling one wonders if we should consider that, guided by the Holy Spirit, the apostle’s words would have a primary meaning for those he wrote to, with application to their immediate circumstances, and a secondary application to the disciples of later centuries when circumstances would be different. Did the apostle know that he was writing not only for the Colossians but also for others centuries later? For example, in speaking of Colossians 2:8 the author gives several renderings for the expression “the rudiments of the world”. To the Gentiles it could refer to imagined elemental spirits of the universe as suggested by Barclay, to the Jew it could refer to the Law with its ordinances prohibiting certain actions, while we in our day see it, as Brother Barling says, as “A materialistic teaching bound up with this world alone, and contrary to the freedom of the Spirit”.

This little work should prove particularly useful when working out a theme for a Fraternal Gathering or a Bible Class where it is appropriate to examine the possible meanings of a particular word or phrase, always bearing in mind that more than one meaning may be intended by Paul, a good example indeed of what is now called lateral thinking.

H. J. SALTER

(Originally published in the October 1973 edition of The Testimony Magazine (pages 369-370), and is reproduced by kind permission.)

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