Notes on the Epistle to the Colossians

J. N. Darby.

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Two Epistles of the New Testament are occupied with the mystery of the church united to Christ in one body, the Epistle to the Ephesians, and that to the Colossians. There is consequently identity in a measure between the two epistles; but they show the subject each under a particular aspect, presenting as to the details a sensible difference. In the first Paul sees the church in Christ, the saints occupying in Him their place in heaven; in the second he sees Christ in the saints (not them in Him) on the earth.

Chapter 1:1-3. Paul addresses himself to the Colossians from our God and Father [and the Lord Jesus Christ],* that is to say, on the footing of our relationship with God. He blesses the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the first source of all our blessings. This is the manner in which he enters upon his subject. This opening is the same as that of the Epistle to the Ephesians.

{*The critics omit "and the Lord Jesus Christ" here.}

Verses 4-12. But here is a difference. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul, before coming to that which concerns the faith of the saints, and their spiritual condition, causes quite a stream of the riches of the grace of God to flow (Eph. 1:3-14); whilst in the Epistle to the Colossians he is occupied immediately with their condition. This would indicate that these latter were found in a lower moral condition than the former. He could, from the very outset, speak to the Ephesians of the riches of the counsels of God; the Colossians required him to be occupied with them firstly. In verse 4 Paul records their faith, and in verses 5-12 he recalls the work of God in their favour, expressing his desires and his prayers for their prosperity.

Verses 9-12. This introduction presents to us a fine summary of all that one can ask of God for Christians. If we had sufficient confidence in the interest which God takes in His children, we should have greater boldness in asking God, according to the intentions of His grace. We do not live enough by this grace, and that is why our prayers are so constantly stamped with the sense of want. We are often the Abraham of Genesis 15, who asks for himself, saying to God: "What wilt thou give me?" But Paul shews himself here the Abraham of Genesis 18, sitting before God, worshipping Him, and making requests for others.

250 Verse 10. To walk worthily, is not only not to fall, but rather also to act in a manner so as to be pleasing to the Lord; it is to shew Him a walk in harmony with the knowledge He has given us of Himself and of His will.

Verse 11. Strengthened with all might according to the power of His glory; not merely "glorious." The power indicated by these words is that which the glory of God possesses.

Verse 12. Giving thanks to the Father which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints. We inherit from God as children (Rom. 8:17); it is then from our Father that we receive the inheritance. And the Father, who gives us the right to the inheritance, prepares us also to receive it, and to enjoy it.

"In light." He has made us such, that we are capable of dwelling in the light. We can dwell there with joy, where is found absolute holiness.

Verses 13, 14. "Translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love." God does not wish to put His own in absolute purity without giving them an object of affection. This inheritance which He gives is also the kingdom of the Son of His love into which we enter virtually through the redemption accomplished by His Son.

Verses 15-29. Having thus named Christ, Paul goes on now to present Him in the glory of His Person; he goes on to tell what Christ is in Himself, the works He has accomplished, what He is in His own.

As concerns this, we remark in Christ, as elements of His glory; two headships, one in creation, the other in resurrection (v.15-18); two reconciliations, that of the creation, and that of the saints forming the church (v. 19-22); and two ministries proceeding from Him, the gospel preached to all creation, and the ministry of the church (v. 23-29).

Verse 15. What glory there is in the Person of Christ! He is on one side the image of the invisible God, manifesting in His Person the God that cannot be seen, and on the other He is the Head of all creation.

"First-born." This title indicates that He who bears it is Head over all. One sees an example of this in Psalm 89:27, where Solomon, tenth son of David (1 Chron. 3), receives with the title of "first-born" the right to his father's throne. It is not difficult to conceive that if the Creator-God finds it good to take a place in the creation, the first belongs to Him. The Son took this place in becoming Man.

251 Verses 14-17. The Son, who is before things, created all things from the beginning, and by the same power which He shewed in the formation of the worlds, He holds up all things to-day. Without Him, all in creation would dissolve.

Verse 16. Visible and invisible things, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers, everything powerful depends upon the power of Christ who created all. And not only is it by Him, but for Him, that all things were created.

Verse 18. He is the Head in resurrection, as in creation.

Verse 19. Hitherto we have seen Christ the image of God, and Head of all things. He presents Himself now to us, uniting all fulness in His Person. There dwelt all the fulness. The Gnostics had imagined a fulness in which Jesus occupied one place only. Now to preserve for the Lord His true place, the apostle declares that, far from belonging to a fulness, Jesus is the one in whom all the fulness was pleased to dwell. What is this fulness? It is deity.

Verse 20. It pleased this fulness, which created everything, to reconcile all things, when after the entrance of sin they were found in disorder.

"To reconcile all things," that is, creation outside Himself, and the church in Himself; the reconciliation of the church is already an accomplished fact. "You hath he reconciled."

The general condition of things is complete confusion: all creation is in disorder; Satan is in the heavenly places; and, being the god of this age, leads the course of this world. But this disorder will not always last. God will put His hand to it; the state of things will change. Meanwhile the moral reconciliation is already wrought; we are reconciled to God: as for our bodies which partake of corruption, deliverance will come also, for that we wait, the reconciliation of creation.

When speaking of reconciliation, Paul neither mentions wicked men nor Satan: they are named when it is a question of the subjection of all things to Christ (Phil. 2). But when it is a question of reconciliation, it is evident that they could not be spoken of.

252 Verse 21. The reconciliation of the saints, composing the church, presents a fact which is special to it. Paul, in looking at it, finds the objects of this reconciliation in the greatest distance from God. He sees the Colossians (their condition is that of every man in the flesh) as not only sharing in the general disorder of creation, but as alienated from God. Such are the beings that Christ has reconciled to God. He has reconciled them in the body of His flesh - in Himself.

Verse 22. It is important to remark that the reconciliation of the church, as well as the headship of Christ in resurrection are in connection with His Person.

Verse 23. "If ye continue in the faith." One may gather from these words that there was not much stability among the Colossians. The words "if ye continue in the faith," indicate a condition. As concerns this, we may remark, that the presentation of our persons to God, to which this condition would seem to be bound up, is very free for us, since it is God who does all that this condition requires (v. 22). But then (v. 23), if we abandoned Christianity we should lose our advantage, seeing that we should thereby have rejected the grace by which we were presented to God. This does not at all touch the election and the perseverance of the saints (one finds this language unceasingly in the epistles); it only proves that God, whose faithfulness guaranteed the accomplishment of His counsel, keeps ourselves, and that He keeps us morally.

Verses 23-25. Observe these two ministries: the preaching of the gospel in all the creation which is under heaven; and the service of Paul as minister of the church. These two ministries are distinct; but we see them combined in the person of Paul. Ministries inferior to the apostleship are in general given for one or other of these two branches of service, though it may happen, too, that God sometimes employs one and the same servant to meet the very varied need of souls.

Verse 25. "To fulfil the word of God." The doctrine of the church completes the word of God - the Scriptures. What was given afterwards did not add new truths to the revelation of God. The Apocalypse, for instance, gives many new details on prophecy; it casts much light on the prophets of the Old Testament, etc., but they are not at all new truths.

Verses 26, 27. "The mystery which hath been hid from ages." To declare the coming of Christ on the earth, His sufferings, His departure, His return in glory to establish a kingdom - all this was not a mystery, it was revealed. One may misunderstand these revelations, and in this case there was ignorance or mistake. But a Christ glorious and heavenly, who unites all in His Person - a Christ, Head of His body, forming the same heavenly body of saved Jews and Gentiles - was only revealed in the New Testament. And not only was this mystery hidden, but it does not at all agree with the hopes of the Jews: for a Christ present (by His Spirit) among the Gentiles, who is as yet only the hope of glory, is far from answering to the expectations of the Jews, who looked for the Messiah to come then, bringing them the glory and establishing the kingdom.

253 "Christ in you," or among you, Gentiles. Such is the side of the mystery which attaches to the presence of Christ come, where He has given the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). "Came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh," Eph. 2:17. This expression "among you" applies consequently in the dispensations of God to this particular period during which Christ is among the Gentiles by His Spirit.

Verses 28, 29. Paul laboured to present "every man perfect in Christ Jesus." It is not enough for the spiritual life that one be in Christ without anything more. It is needful, besides, that one should apprehend what Christ is, and that our character should be formed by this knowledge. A Jew or a Gentile who embraced the faith was saved; but he had much to learn with respect to our Saviour. He must learn that Jesus is Lord of all, Head over all, as well as to the church, that He is High Priest of good things to come, etc. Paul did not weary in his efforts to make Jesus known. His heart desired in a lively way that every man should become a formed and full-grown Christian. Every man "perfect" means full-grown. The same word reappears in Philippians 3:15, and in Hebrews 5:14.

Chapter 2:2. "Being knit in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding." The New Testament speaks of full assurance of faith in Hebrews 10:22; and "of full assurance of hope" in chapter 6:11 of the same epistle. But in the passage that we are studying we read, "full assurance of understanding." Paul asked in his prayer for the Colossians that they might joy in this "full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God." This last is more vast and extending; it is all in connection with the glory of Christ. The full assurance of faith and hope is more towards ourselves, and our joy; the full assurance of understanding brings us into the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, and this gives us understanding in all His ways. It is astonishing to see how quickly our thoughts turn to the earth, and bring down heavenly things to our own lives. That explains why legality is so often found among Christians, for the elements of the world and law go together. If we live up to our heavenly position, enjoying communion with God in that position, we see things in God, and contemplate from on high His great love.

254 It is love which gives us this assurance of understanding; love precedes it. In this love we can understand divine things; but if not there we find ourselves led away by self, and selfishness understands nothing of the things of God.

Verses 2, 3. Omit in these verses the words, "and of the Father and of Christ," and read "the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, in which are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." The church is part of the mystery of God, but it embraces more than the church; it is the purpose that God before all time had of uniting all under one Head, Christ, in giving Him, as centre of this whole, the church composed of Jews and Gentiles to form one body with Him. Thus, according to the purposes of God, Christ takes His place as Head over all who belong to the second creation having in glory the church as a body.

God's government down here represents the elements of Christ's glory, but they do not form part of the mystery; so the glory of the Messiah among the Jews, and the lordship of the Son of man over the nations do not belong to the mystery of God. These things are revealed in the Old Testament.

Verse 6. It appears the Colossians were inclined to philosophy, legality, etc. To turn them from it the Holy Ghost says, "There are no such elements in the things which ye have received, but hold fast that which ye have received of God, and walk ye in it."

Reasoning is a vain deception. If man does not accept the testimony of the word of God, he understands nothing amidst the confusion which surrounds him. Philosophers say, "All is God" Well evil being in the world, what is the consequence? Is the evil of God? Admit the fall of man, and these errors will vanish.

255 For "after the tradition of men," read, "according to the teaching," the word signifies, "transfer to another." The Jews went a good deal into the elements of philosophy; they adopted the form to which they submitted the Jewish elements.

"The rudiments of the world." Philosophy goes no farther: it could not give us anything, much more where the truth of God is in question; anything we find added only tends to destroy. Gnostical inventions reject the divinity of Jesus, and the mystery of the incarnation. Later inventions make other truths disappear. Thus, the mass annuls the perfect sacrifice of the cross; and invoking the intercession of saints does not acknowledge the priesthood of Christ. So the Christian should seek for nought outside Christ. We are in Him in whom all fulness dwells: what can we want more? We are complete and perfected in Him.

Verse 9. "For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." In this verse, as in chapter 1:19, already noticed, we see that all fulness dwells in Jesus. There this fulness is seen respecting the counsels of God, the goodwill of God; here it represents, rather, the accomplished work of redemption.

Verse 10. "Ye are complete in him." Notice: far from having anyone between us and Christ, we are in Him who is the Head of all principality and power. We lose our standing, if, for example, we allow an angel to come between Christ and us, although as a creature an angel is far superior to us. There is no mediator between us and Christ; there is between us and God, this very mediator being Christ Himself.

Verse 11. Paul shews that we have in Christ the reality of things signified in the ordinances. Being in Christ we have life, and this life produces death in the flesh, the true circumcision.* To seek life by death would be to wish for death outside of Christ. We are never recommended to die to sin; it is said, we are dead to sin. In practice, it is true, one realises life according to the measure that he is dead.

{*This truth decides the question discussed with the monks and the Irvingites. They want to obtain life by death, instead of knowing that we are dead by the fact that we have received life.}

In Christ circumcision consists in putting off the body (of the sins) of the flesh. With one gleam of faith one is entirely freed from sin looked at as a whole. This passage does not refer to practical life. It shews a moral condition, which is, in fact, when we receive Christ by faith. Note here, it does not say, "the sins of the body," but "the body of the sins" - sin being looked at as a principal characteristic of the body. The circumcision of Christ exists in the fact that we are constituted dead to sin.

256 Verse 12. To unfold the subject more fully, Paul adds, "Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him," v. 12, 13. One can look at man in two ways - as living in the world, and as being dead in his sins. Paul, in Romans 6, sees the Christian out of the first of these two conditions. "Shall we continue in sin?" and in Ephesians 2 he sees him out of the second - "Ye were dead." And here we find the grace which corresponds with these two states - "Ye walked according to the course of this world; now ye are buried with Christ. … Ye were dead in your sins; God hath quickened you.

Verse 13. This verse represents a detail, which, I believe, was not remarked in the Ephesians, namely, that God in quickening us pardons our offences; with one act He does the two things. The knowledge of our sins does not prevent Him from quickening us. In this case the quickening brings of itself the pardon of our sins. If, for example, my child is being punished, and I come and take him for a walk, it is clear he is forgiven. One sees in the light of such grace how man has liberty through Christ.

Verses 13-15. The death of Jesus corresponds in several ways to the condition and wants of sinful man. There are trespasses - Jesus has forgiven them (v. 13); ordinances - He has blotted them out (v. 14); principalities and powers - He has triumphed over them. How valuable it makes the cross! Respecting this deliverance, it all applies to saints individually, not to the church as a body. This body has its existence in Christ alone. The church has never been under the power of death, nor under judgment; it has never needed to be justified, which is all individual. Where the church is named, there is no room for any such question.

But do we not see in Ephesians 5:25, that Christ gave Himself for the church? Yes; before Christ formed the church for Himself, He bought it with a price. In this passage the idea is not justification, but the love that Jesus had in giving Himself for the church. Justification, that is to say, the grace that enables a sinner to stand before God, is not brought out in the Epistle to the Ephesians. This epistle speaks of the church as being in the heavenlies, united to Christ, and heir to His glory, according to all the counsels of God; it shews also the love and care of Jesus for His church. Christ, according to this love, gave Himself for it, bought it by His death; and now that it is His, He purifies it by the word before presenting it to Himself glorious. The church in this last case is the object of care, similar to that received by Esther before being presented to king Ahasuerus. But all this is not justification.

257 Verse 14. The handwriting should be, "the obligation" - the obligation that existed in ordinances. An ordinance is all that is given to one in the flesh to accomplish: Peter calls it a yoke that neither we nor our fathers could bear. The ten commandments are presented under the form of an ordinance, but they point to something larger; they trace the conduct of a creature that knows love, and are thus the expression of a great moral principle that even angels obey.

258 The breaking of bread, is it an ordinance? Not in the sense that we understand ordinance; it is not a commandment, but a privilege granted to us to remember Jesus. The feast of unleavened bread on the contrary was an ordinance to which one must submit under pain of being cut off. Neither is the breaking of bread a sacrament. Originally a sacrament was a faithful oath that the Roman soldiers made to their flag. Fathers of the church called many things by this name; breaking of bread, baptism, and marriage were all sacraments to them. In a time of persecution to break bread was well, in one way, to profess the faithfulness of Christ; but it happened also at a similar time to profess faithfulness was no more than the breaking of bread. This expression "a sacrament" has become so ecclesiastical that it leads the mind away. Breaking of bread and baptism are no more sacraments than the viaticum and marriage. It is well to get clear of these bits of superstition.

Christ has left us two signs: one of His death and resurrection, baptism; the other, the memorial of His death, the breaking of bread. It is sad that it is called an ordinance if more is meant than the Lord's institution. When Jesus said "Do this in remembrance of me," surely He meant that it should be done; but by these words He only gave a motive, and did not establish an ordinance.

The breaking of bread, and baptism, were things practised by the Jews. They broke bread with the afflicted (Jer. 16:7); they had pools for their baptisms. The Lord adopted the first of these two customs for the breaking of bread; the second for the washing of regeneration. "He took bread, and blessed it" (Luke 24:30) means He gave thanks to God, no more.

Verse 15. Having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly. Jesus has, as it were, drawn the enemy into a public scene. Speaking historically it is the enemy who has conducted the things in this manner.

Verse 16. There are three results derived from verse 12: "Let no man therefore judge you," etc. (v. 16-19); "Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ," etc. (v. 20-23); "If ye then be risen with Christ," etc. (chap. 3:1-4).

"Of the sabbath," all the days that they were compelled to rest were called sabbaths.

Verse 18. "Let no man beguile you of your reward." The idea that these words present is to be deprived of the crown after having run. "In a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels intruding into those things which he hath not seen." But the adversary is satisfied; he succeeds in that way to force you to make a diversion, and to turn your thoughts from the object of your faith. As soon as men take this attitude of voluntary humility, they are not "holding the head." How can he that has the right to own himself one with Christ let such a privilege go to turn to other objects?

Verse 19. The Lord, far from having instituted an order . of things to come between us and Him, has given the ministry which works to join, and sustain the members of the body united to the Head. This verse shews the direct union of each member with the Head.

Verse 20. Why are ye subject to ordinances? As though living in the world. It is not the simple fact of being in the world that these words infer, but to have lived in it and of it, outside of Christ. It is to this kind of life that ordinances apply themselves. It is remarkable to see how the very things in which Christianity seems to give place to man - baptism and the breaking of bread, of which the flesh would make ordinances, these very institutions declare man to be dead.

259 Chapter 3:1-4. Taking part in Christ's resurrection the Christian finds himself a heavenly person. Jesus his life and joy is hidden in heaven; and such a Christian can but have heavenly thoughts and affections.

Verse 4. "When Christ who is our life shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory." We have life, we are already quickened, but there is more to expect from this life; God wishes it to shine in glory. The promise is given; and when Christ shall appear, then shall we also appear with Him.

Verse 5. If there are things we should not seek after, there are also others we should fight against.

Verse 6. Some people say unbelief is the only sin on which will fall the judgment of God, but we see by this and the preceding verses that God's judgment will come on the rebellious for other things beside unbelief.

Verse 10. The new man is renewed in knowledge, or in other words made new for knowledge. It is the Christian seen in his new nature through the new life. "After the image of him that created him." The renewing that God accomplishes in us is not after the pattern of the first Adam, but a renewing according to Christ. This verse presents two privileges for the Christian, the divine nature in him, the new man; and an object outside himself, Christ, the object of his faith and thoughts.

Verse 11. While awaiting the glory when God will be all in all, Christ dwells already in His saints, He has formed in them the new man, in whom also He is all and in all. The old man can have ordinances and philosophy, but to the new man Christ is all.

Verse 14. Nothing is perfect in our behaviour towards others without love, divine love, brotherly love, etc. You must bring God in, God is love. That is why love is the bond of perfectness. Surely, when the first thought of our heart is formed in God, it is perfection.

Verse 15. Read "Let the peace of Christ."

Verse 16. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly"; that there should be in your hearts by the effect of the word, an unfolding of the Christ you acknowledge, and that it be perfect.

Chapter 4:5. "Walk in wisdom: redeeming the time."

Verse 16. Read "That from Laodicea," the epistle which will come to you from Laodicea.

260 Remarks.

The comparison between the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians gives rise to the remarks which follow. They both treat of the church united to Christ, as being His body. But the Epistle to the Colossians goes rather to unfold the perfection of the Head, than to shew the privileges of the body; while the Epistle to the Ephesians does the reverse. The Ephesians being well grounded in faith and holding fast the truth of their union with Christ, the Holy Ghost could unfold to them the great privileges derived from that union. The Colossians, on the contrary, needed to be established in the faith and to be shewn Christ in His fulness, Head of the church. Thus the two subjects are complete, and present at once to us both the perfection of the Head, and the privileges of the body.

In the Epistle to the Ephesians the church, being in a good state, is seen on high in its position in Christ, and from there looking down contemplates what God is doing and going to do. In Colossians Paul shews rather what is on high, directs the Christian's gaze upward, shewing him the perfection of Christ, and the hope which is reserved for him in heaven. This position of the Christian awaiting the heavenly glory resembles a little that given him in the course where we see him pressing toward the mark. In this respect the subject of the Colossians approaches that of the Philippians. These two aspects of the Christian's position explain another difference remarked between Ephesians and Colossians. In one Paul says, Christ shall appear; in the other he does not speak of His return. The Ephesians are seen as being already on high. There is another epistle - to the Galatians, where Paul keeps silent as to the coming of Jesus, without doubt for the opposite reason: the moral state of the Galatians was too low.

Many things connected with the Holy Ghost in Ephesians are connected with the new man in Colossians, on account of the difference between the two on the common subject. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, where Paul looks principally at the body, he mentions necessarily the Holy Spirit who is in the body, uniting it all in one. In that to the Colossians, where individuality is more forcibly marked, he sees the new man characterised by the individual. Again two different effects: the Holy Spirit, the power of God which works in us; and the new man, the communicated divine nature, which renders us responsible.