Colossians is a polemical letter couched in imperial language. In opposition to false teachings, Paul rejects the idea that believers should complement their faith by entrusting themselves to any entity other than Christ. Throughout the letter, Paul uses imperial language and ideas—challenging the authority of Rome and affirming the universal lordship of Christ.

In 2:15, Paul refers to the disarming of “powers and authorities,” and, in 2:18, he states that some believers are worshiping “angels.” Scholars debate the identity of these figures. Paul’s readers probably treated them as deities and sought to win their favor and receive their protection from danger, as complements to belief in Christ. In response, Paul’s strategy is to show that Christians should not worship or honor these cosmic powers because they were brought into being through their creator—namely the Son, through whom God has brought all things into being (Col 1:16).

Before exploring these themes further, it is important to situate Colossians’ readers geographically. Paul addressed his letter to believers at Colossae and Laodicea (4:16), and he mentions believers at Hierapolis (4:13). These cities were within a day’s walking distance from one another and were visible to each other. They were located on central trade routes connecting them to the southern and western coasts of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

We learn from the book of Acts that many of the first Christians were tradespeople. It was along imperial trade routes that the gospel traveled and the church expanded. It is likely that Paul and possibly other apostles founded the churches in these cities as they preached the gospel while plying their trades. Thus, when we hear about Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, we learn about an audience shaped by imperial realities and ideas. In addition, during the reign of Nero (when Colossians was written) there was a temple at Laodicea dedicated to the worship of the emperor.

We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, to find imperial language and themes running through Colossians. We can see this especially well in three places: in Paul’s likening of Jesus’ death to an imperial victory; in his representation of the inclusion of outsiders in Christ’s reign; and in his picture of the gospel growing to encompass the whole world.

Language of Victory

Paul likens the death and resurrection of Jesus to a victory over the principalities and powers. He probably means that these cosmic entities have held the cosmos in bondage, but through Jesus’ death and resurrection God has broken the chains that have enslaved creation. Christians have nothing to fear and have no reason to worship or obey those powers.

In 2:15 Paul writes, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross].” To celebrate the cross’ victory, Paul uses the imperial image of a Roman triumph: Emperors celebrated important military victories with a parade through the capital. Prisoners of war, together with captured weapons and plundered wealth, would be paraded through Rome to the temple of Jupiter. There, they would execute captives or take them away to be sold into slavery, and wealth would be distributed or ceremonially offered to the deity. City dwellers, like those addressed in Colossians, learned about these victories through coins, statues, temples, and other media spread across the empire.

Paul could rely on his audience to recognize this imagery and thus used it to drive home the meaning of the crucifixion and its implications for the church’s exclusive worship of Jesus. There is a twist here, however; Paul celebrates Christ’s execution—a violent event typically signifying Roman conquest—as the means by which God triumphs. Whereas the principalities and powers govern by force and threat of violence, Jesus’ victory is achieved through his death and resurrection. His death means that it is he who is the triumphator, not they. In that sense, he turns the idea of imperial triumph upside down

Language of Inclusion

Paul further uses imperial imagery to celebrate how the gospel incorporates outsiders. In 3:11, Paul states that Christ’s rule extends beyond all geographical boundaries: “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” These verses echo Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”).

The Galatians passage celebrates that the gospel brings the end of religious, economic, and gender divisions. In Colossians, the emphasis is more geographical and territorial. The reference to “barbarian” and “Scythian” speaks to the Roman idea of the empire as the sphere of civilization. In the Roman mindset, barbarians were peoples the empire had already conquered and who were typically sold into slavery or who awaited conquest, while Scythians—generally people who lived along the northwestern coast of the Black Sea—were wild and uncivilized. Thus, when Paul states that the gospel extends to include even Scythians, he celebrates the fullest geographical reach of Christ’s triumph over death and the principalities and powers. Nothing—no cosmic power and no territorial boundary—can resist the expansion of Christ’s reign.

As in the case of the Roman triumph, Paul’s audience could see pictures of conquered barbarians on coins, statues, and temples, so he uses picture-language to celebrate the reach of Christ’s rule.

Language of Good News

The third place we see imperial language is in Colossians 1:6, where Paul celebrates the good news: “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” This verse is filled with imperial images. First, the term “gospel” was Roman political terminology for the “good news” of Caesar’s reign—the end of social strife, the arrival of prosperity, and the extension of global peace.

Second, the organic imagery of bearing fruit and growing was commonplace in imperial ideology. The idea was that, through the emperor, the gods brought an end to war. Further, because of the emperor’s proper religious performances, the gods rewarded the empire with fertility and prosperity. Of course, for the vast majority of the empire’s inhabitants, the lived truth was very different from what this language described. Nevertheless, authorities repeated the same message in innumerable ways across Rome’s vast dominion. Paul here uses the same imagery but again inflects it in a new way: It is not Caesar’s gospel that is growing and bearing fruit, but rather Christ’s.

True prosperity and peace does not come about through violence or the threat of war but through God’s love, manifested in Jesus and the triumph of his self-giving death on the cross. It is not worship of the gods or their vice-regent, the emperor, that produces abundant life, but rather worship of God’s Son, Jesus.

Turning Our Words to Christ

Christians have always been tempted to complement belief in Jesus with devotion to principalities and powers. In Paul’s day, devotion to cosmic powers seemed like a good way to expand Christian faith. Today, we may look to other principalities and powers to complement our belief. We may entrust ourselves to politicians promising utopias, to economic systems offering prosperity, or even to veneration of cultural icons as patterns of fulfillment. They are no less imperial than the cosmic powers Paul opposed, because they typically promise happiness for the global order. What could be wrong with placing this alongside Christian belief? Paul’s answer: everything!

The language and message of Colossians are anti-imperial. Paul’s claims speak to an alternative global rule based on love and Jesus’s sacrificial death. So too, in our words, we must make a choice—and single-mindedly trust in Christ.

* Scripture quotations are the author's translation

 
Dr. Harry O. Maier is professor of New Testament and early Christian studies at Vancouver School of Theology. He is the author of Picturing Paul in Empire: Imperial Image, Text and Persuasion in Colossians, Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (T&T Clark, 2013). He also has a forthcoming commentary on Colossians and Philemon (Wiley-Blackwell Bible Commentaries).

Dr. Harry O. Maier is professor of New Testament and early Christian studies at Vancouver School of Theology. He is the author of Picturing Paul in Empire: Imperial Image, Text and Persuasion in Colossians, Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (T&T Clark, 2013). He also has a forthcoming commentary on Colossians and Philemon (Wiley-Blackwell Bible Commentaries).

 

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