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by John Calvin
ON THE EPISTLE OF PAUL TO THE COLOSSIANS.
There were three neighboring cities in Phrygia, as made mention of by Paul in this Epistle — Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colosse which, as Orosius (262) informs us, were overthrown (263) by an earthquake in the times of the emperor Nero. Accordingly, not long after this Epistle was written, three Churches of great renown perished by a mournful as well as horrible occurrence — a bright mirror truly of divine judgment, if we had but eyes to see it. The Colossians had been, not indeed by Paul, but with fidelity and purity by Epaphras and other ministers, instructed in the gospel; but immediately afterwards, Satan had, with his tares, crept in, (Matthew 13:25,) (264) according to his usual and invariable manner, that he might there pervert the right faith. (265)
Some are of opinion that there were two classes of men that endeavored to draw aside the Colossians from the purity of the gospel; — that, on the one hand, the philosophers, by disputing in reference to stars, fate, and trifles of a like nature, and that the Jews, on the other hand, by urging the observance of their ceremonies, had raised up many mists with the view of throwing Christ into the shade. (266) Those, however, who are of this opinion are influenced by a conjecture of exceedingly little weight — on the ground that PAUL makes mention of thrones, and powers, and heavenly creatures. For as to their adding also the term elements, (267) it is worse than ridiculous. As, however, it is not my intention to refute the opinions of others, I shall simply state what appears to me to be the truth, and what may be inferred by sound reasoning.
In the first place, it is abundantly evident, from Paul’s words, that those profligates were intent upon this — that they might mix up Christ with Moses, and might retain the shadows of the law along with the gospel. Hence it is probable that they were Jews. As, however, they coloured over their fallacies with specious disguises, (268) Paul, on this account, calls it a vain philosophy. (Colossians 2:8) At the same time, in employing that term, he had in his eye, in my opinion, the speculations with which they amused themselves, which were subtle, it is true, but at the same time useless and profane: for they contrived a way of access to God through means of angels, and put forth many speculations of that nature, such as are contained in the books of Dionysius on the Celestial Hierarchy, (269) drawn from the school of the Platonists. This, therefore, is the principal object at which he aims — to teach that all things are in Christ, and that he alone ought to be reckoned amply sufficient by the Colossians.
The order, however, which he follows is this: — After the inscription usually employed by him, he commends them, with the view of leading them to listen to him more attentively. He then, with the view of shutting up the way against all new and strange contrivances, bears testimony to the doctrine which they had previously received from Epaphras. Afterwards, in entreating that the Lord would increase their faith, he intimates that something is still wanting to them, that he may pave the way for imparting to them more solid instruction. On the other hand, he extols with suitable commendations the grace of God towards them, that they may not lightly esteem it. Then follows the instruction, in which he teaches that all parts of our salvation are to be found in Christ alone, that they may not seek anything elsewhere; and he puts them in mind that it was in Christ that they had obtained every blessing that they possessed, in order that they might the more carefully make it their aim to retain him to the end. (270) And, truly, even this one article were of itself perfectly sufficient to lead us to reckon this Epistle, short as it is, to be an inestimable treasure; for what is of greater importance in the whole system of heavenly doctrine than to have Christ drawn to the life, that we may distinctly behold (271) his excellence, his office, and all the fruits that arise to us from it.
For in this respect especially we differ from Papists, that while we are both of us called Christians, and profess to believe in Christ, they picture to themselves one that is torn, disfigured, divested of his excellence, denuded of his office, in fine, such as to be a spectre (272) rather than Christ himself: we, on the other hand, embrace him such as he is here described by Paul — loving and efficacious. This Epistle, therefore, to express it in one word, distinguishes the true Christ from a fictitious one (273) — than which nothing better or more excellent can be desired. Towards the end of the First Chapter he again endeavors to secure authority for himself from the station assigned him, (274) and in magnificent terms extols the dignity of the gospel.
In the Second Chapter he opens up more distinctly than he had done the reason which had induced him to write — that he might provide against the danger which he saw to be impending over them, while he touches, in passing, on the affection which he cherishes towards them, that they may know that their welfare is the object of his concern. From this he proceeds to exhortation, by which he applies the foregoing doctrine, as it were, to present use; (275) for he bids them rest in Christ alone, and brands as vanity everything that is apart from Christ. (276) He speaks particularly of circumcision, abstinence from food, and of other outward exercises — in which they mistakingly made the service of God to consist; and also of the absurd worship of angels, whom they put in Christ’s room. Having made mention of circumcision, he takes occasion to notice also, in passing, what is the office, and what is the nature of ceremonies — from which he lays it down as a settled point that they have been abrogated by Christ. These things are treated of till the end of the Second Chapter.
In the Third Chapter, in opposition to those vain prescriptions, to the observance of which the false apostles were desirous to bind believers, he makes mention of those true offices of piety in which the Lord would have us employ ourselves; and he begins with the very spring-head — that is, mortification of the flesh and newness of life. From this he derives the streams — that is, particular exhortations, some of which apply to all Christians alike, while others relate more especially to particular individuals, according to the nature of their calling.
In the beginning of the Fourth Chapter he follows out the same subject: afterwards, having commended himself to their prayers, he shews by many tokens (277) how much he loves them, and is desirous to promote their welfare.
(262) Orosius, (Paulus,) a “Spanish presbyter, a native of Tarragona, flourished under Arcadius and Honorius.” — Smith’s Dictionary of Greek Biography and Mythology. — Ed.
(263) “ Toutes trois furent destructes et renversees;” — “They were, all the three, destroyed and overthrown.”
(264) “ Satan y estoit entré cauteleusement auec son yuroye;” — “Satan had entered in there craftily with his tares.”
(265) “ Pour y corrompre et peruertir la vraye foy;” — “That he might there corrupt and pervert the true faith.”
(266) “ Auoyent comme fait leuer beaucoup de brouillars pour offusquer la clarte de Christ, voire pour la suffoquer;” — “Had, as it were, raised up many mists with the view of darkening Christ’s brightness; nay, more, with the view of choking it.”
(267) “ Car quant au mot d’elemens, sur lequel aussi ils fondent leur opinion;” — “For as to the word elements, on which also they found their opinion.”
(268) “ Pource qu’ils couuroyent de belles couleurs leurs fallaces et tromperies, et fardoyent leur doctrine;” — “As they covered over their fallacies and deceptions with beautiful colors, and painted their doctrine.”
(269) See Calvin on the Corinthians, vol. 2, p. 370, n. 3.
(270) “ Et pour les faire plus songneux de la retenir iusqu’a la fin, et s’arrester tousiours en luy, il recite que par Christ ils sont entrez en participation de tout bien et benediction;” — “And with the view of making them more careful to retain him unto the end, and remain always in him, he reminds them that it is through Christ that they have begun to participate of every benefit and blessing.”
(271) “ Afin que nous puissions aiseement veoir et contempler;” — “That we may be able easily to perceive and contemplate.”
(272) “ Tel, que c’est plustost vn phantasme qu’ vn vray Christ;” — “Such, that it is rather a phantasm than a true Christ.”
(273) “ Imaginatif, ou faict a plaiser;” — “Imaginary, or fictitious.”
(274) “ Pour estre plus authorizé entr’ eux, il fait derechef mention de la charge qu’il auoit receuë de Dieu;” — “That he may have more authority among them, he again makes mention of the charge which he had received from God.”
(275) “ A son propos, et a ce dont ils auoyent affaire;” — “To his subject, and to what they had to do with.”
(276) “ Monstrant, que tout ce qui hors Christ, n’est que vanite;” — “Shewing that everything that is apart from Christ is mere vanity.”
(277) “ Par plusieurs signes et tesmoignages;” — “By many signs and evidences.”
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13