Prayer and Thanksgiving
1. Thanksgiving in the beginnings of Paul’s letters
2. Paul’s reasons for thanksgiving in his letters
3. Why does Paul give thanks?
4. The Colossian thanksgiving
Faith, love and hope
We saw in the structure of the salutation that Paul used the same general format - and even identical words on many occasions - to open his letters to both individuals and groups of believers in cities and regions.
We may think that the apostle now dispenses with such pleasantries (for want of a better word) and gets down to the reason for writing with an immediacy and purpose, tailoring the content of the letter to the perceived needs of each recipient. But this is far from the truth. Colbrien supplies the reader with evidence that, after a salutation, ancient letters normally consisted of three elements in which
‘1. thanks are offered to the gods
‘2. often there is an assurance that the gods are being petitioned regularly for the welfare or health of the readers, and
‘3. the reasons for the thanksgiving to the gods are mentioned - frequently because they are thought to have saved the writer or the reader from some calamity’
Most of this evidence comes from letters written from the third century BC onwards and, as can be seen from even a cursory look over Paul’s opening words, the apostle may conform his writing to the general style of the times in which he lives, but he uses it as a vehicle for the proclamation of the Gospel and the edification of his recipients.
Colbrien also notes a sevenfold structure in the opening thanksgivings paragraphs of Paul and he should be referred to for further information. If, indeed, he stuck to a consistent pattern of opening remarks, it would seem that the recipients of his letters would have been fairly certain - once they’d heard two or three - that such a letter was from the man himself and not a forgery.
Prayer and Thanksgiving
1. Thanksgiving in the beginnings of Paul’s letters
If we accept the view of the many commentators of Colossians that Paul’s intention in writing the letter was to correct the heresies which had crept into the fellowship, we’d note that his preamble seems overly lengthy (Col 1:3-2:7) before he embarks on the main thrust of his teaching (Col 2:8). But this passage not only comments on the apostle’s relationship to the fellowship which he’s never personally been amongst but also lays down a ‘theology’ of the person of Christ and the Gospel that’s fundamental to their own experience and development.
Having said this, Colossians bears the hallmarks of Pauline authorship that are repeated in most of his other letters - that is, the apostle normally makes a point of confessing his thanks to God for the recipients of his letter. It would be superfluous for me to quote each of the opening words but we should note that they normally appear in Paul’s letters immediately after the opening salutation (Rom 1:8, I Cor 1:4, Phil 1:3, Col 1:3, I Thess 1:2, II Thess 1:3, II Tim 1:3, Philemon 4).
On occasion, Paul might leave his personal thanks to God until a short while into his letter such as in Eph 1:16 where he prefers to begin with the declaration (Eph 1:3)
‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...’
as he does in II Cor 1:3 but where no word of thanks is noted at a later time. This omission also occurs in two of his ‘pastoral’ letters in I Timothy and Titus where, in both I Tim 1:3 (though Paul records his thanks in the second of his letters to Timothy - II Tim 1:3) and Titus 1:5, he seems to feel an urgency to move straight into the need to remind the recipient of the reason for the place in which they now find themselves and the expectation of the apostle upon them.
Initially, there may be good logic in accepting Colcar’s explanation concerning the omission of thanks in both Galatians and II Corinthians that he’s
‘...showing that he only included it when he really believed it was due’
but what would we then make of the lack of such a statement in the two pastoral letters already noted? And, besides, II Corinthians - if compared alongside I Corinthians - isn’t too bad. We should wonder at why the apostle can thank God for the church in the first of the two letters when there’s so much which needs addressing and correcting but then omit it when they seem to have responded to Paul’s rebuke and had begun to put things right by the time of the writing of the second letter (for example, II Cor 2:1-11, 7:8-16).
However, there’s certainly a good reason for the omission of thanks in Galatians and one would necessarily have expected it had we been forewarned of the situation. This is a fellowship that had undermined the work of Jesus Christ in their own lives by their adherence to Law (Gal 4:19) but such an omission of thanks to God for the recipient in other letters is far from clear.
I noted on the web page dealing with the salutation that the letter to the Ephesians is often taken as being a circular letter distributed to all the fellowships in the vicinity of the city and, with the opening words of thanks lacking (Eph 1:3) this might well be imagined. However, Paul’s inclusion of thanks well into his letter (Eph 1:16) would undermine this position.
Paul also adds a second word of thanks on two occasions and both to the church at Thessalonica (I Thess 2:13, II Thess 2:13 - amazingly enough, they’re the same chapter and verse!) - as this church seems to have had nothing wrong with it except in the area of misunderstanding the Second Coming, perhaps Paul’s double commendation of their conduct is more fitting than it would have been if written to any of the others.
2. Paul’s reasons for thanksgiving in his letters
Paul’s reason for his thanksgiving to God is not always explained in his letters. To the recipients of Ephesians, Paul gets so caught up with the substance of his prayers for them that he fails to note the reason for his thanksgiving (Eph 1:16) and, when writing to Timothy, he again forgets to note his reasons for doing so (II Tim 1:3).
Even when he does give substance to his note of thanks, it takes various forms and doesn’t always follow on logically as a good or sufficient reason when assessed by our present day standards. So, in I Cor 1:4-7, his thanks to God for the believers is
‘...because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus...so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift’
and, in II Thess 2:13, it’s
‘...because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth’
Both of these certainly seem points of thanksgiving which could be directly responded to but as a note of thanksgiving for the church in question it hardly seems appropriate - for the actions mentioned have God as the initiator and not the believers themselves. Rom 1:8 may also be grouped in this bracket, perhaps, as Paul seems to affirm his thanksgiving for the Romans because the faith which they share is being
‘...proclaimed in all the world’
and it’s not certain that he means that it’s by their direct action rather than as the result of all God’s ministers of the New Covenant. Apart from these, thanks are noted on the basis of the recipients’ faith (Col 1:4, I Thess 1:3, II Thess 1:3, Philemon 5) and love towards both Jesus Christ and all their fellow believers (Col 1:4, I Thess 1:3, II Thess 1:3, Philemon 5). I Thess 2:13 also looks back to the point at which the believers responded positively to the message of the Gospel and, judging from the record of the few weeks that Paul was there amongst them (Acts 17:1-9), the opposition which immediately sprang up to oppose the message had done little to persuade the followers that the Word of God was a carefully concocted story to which they’d given themselves over - they realised its truthfulness and had grown in stature.
This is all the more confirmed in II Thess 1:3 where the point of note is not just that both attitudes of faith and love are present but that they’re increasing in their experience showing a clear sign of progression and development in the believers’ walk.
Finally, in just two places can it be interpreted that action outside the believers’ immediate situation is what has prompted Paul to be thankful. I Thess 1:3 is the most ambiguous and should, perhaps, be discarded as it simply mentions ‘your work of faith’ without tying it down to anything which could be concretely understood as something like evangelization or apostolic sponsorship.
But Phil 1:5 (Cp Phil 4:14-18) is clearly a response to the Philippians’ support of Paul’s ministry which speaks of the believers’
‘...partnership in the gospel from the first day until now’
What we should be careful to note, then, is that thanksgiving can be offered to God on behalf of believers for their progression in faith and love even though there may not be any evangelization of the area in which they live. Part of following after Jesus is not tied up with putting on crusades and outreaches but in a personal growth of both faith and love which, quite obviously, will overflow into the world around them.
3. Why does Paul give thanks?
We may wonder at the reason for Paul’s thanking of God for his recipients in the majority of his letters and tie it down to some psychological profile or to his ‘people management’ that saw to it that he got the best out of them, encouraging a positive response. Such has been the type of mentality of a great many churches who’ve continued to maintain the same structures within their fellowships as they’ve always had but, now, the leaders make known their ‘pleasure’ of having those under them within the congregation.
It certainly does make for good relations between leadership and laity for the latter is less likely to rebel against someone who they regard as a friend and who thinks highly of them than against an unknown person who they mistrust or of whom they doubt the sincerity. So, yes, we might like to think of Paul’s declaration of pleasure over the recipients’ existence and response as being a clever ploy on his part to confirm his own position and to secure their obedience.
If that was the case, however, why is such a word missing from some of his letters? And why write so strongly to the churches of Galatia when he could have thanked God for them also and encouraged them to respond positively to the ‘minor theological differences’ that they were exercising?
It seems that a wholly different explanation is required here that establishes the apostle in his own culture and society and which seeks not to interpret his actions in the light of our present day world - we’ve seen above how the structure of Paul’s ‘thanksgivings’ are tied in to the culture of his day but, even so, they still go beyond such bounds to make such an expression very personal.
Paul appears to be genuinely pleased with those to whom he writes (he doesn’t congratulate them on their progress, though, but responds in thanksgiving to the Father) because of the way in which they’ve already responded to the message of the Gospel and their continued obedience to what they perceive Jesus would want from them.
In II Cor 11:22-28, the apostle, for a short time, reveals the nature of his apostleship to those who were going over to the self-proclaimed leaders who were pulling the sincere believers away from devotion to Jesus Christ. He speaks of himself as having
‘...far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure...’
when some of these episodes seem to have gone unrecorded in the pages of the Book of Acts - no wonder, then, that we have such a difficult time in trying to place the writing of the letters into the correct location. And, besides all this, he observes immediately afterwards that
‘...there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches’
which is a good explanation of his declaration that he prays for them and, later, of the strange assertion that he makes (Col 2:1) of
‘...how greatly I strive for you, and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not seen my face’
We may - probably correctly - envisage Paul as preparing messengers with the message of the Gospel which he sends into neighbouring villages and cities to proclaim Jesus, but part of his work for those churches which he hadn’t, as yet, visited is surely his prayer for the groups of believers that he knew existed and which he was all too aware needed to stand strong in their faith as inevitable opposition came against them.
Therefore, when he hears about the state of a fellowship (Col 1:8), he can do nothing other than respond in thanksgiving for what’s being reported - yet it also moves him into even more concern to pray on their behalf that they might increase in stature. His prayers seem to be both thanksgiving and petition, recounting the greatness of the Word of God which has taken root and is developing amongst them but looking beyond what there is presently to a time immediately ahead in which he’s anxious that they might respond positively to everything which comes against them.
Paul’s thanksgiving, then, seems pure and genuine - a personal response to the news which is being brought him of the churches that have responded to the message of the Gospel. His making this known to the individual fellowships is something which he chooses to do as an encouragement - genuine as it is - that the recipients of his letter might take heart that, even though they might be struggling in their walk, their faith has been noted and has caused the apostles and fellow workers to offer thanksgiving to God for what they’ve heard.
4. The Colossian thanksgiving
The RSV interprets the structure of the Greek text here in a way that appears to be unnatural for it takes the word translated ‘always’ and inserts it into the first phrase of the sentence, making the apostle’s thanksgiving to be what it refers to rather than his praying. As Colwright observes (Colbruce follows this by translating it in this manner while Colbrien follows the RSV’s rendering), ‘always’
‘...goes more naturally in the Greek with “when we pray for you”: Paul is continually praying about the church in Colossae and, whenever he does so, he thanks God’
so that thanksgiving isn’t seen as continuous but as part and parcel of what it means to (I Thess 5:17)
‘pray without ceasing’
a phrase which should probably be taken as meaning that each believer should always be in constant communication with God the Father (Paul’s phrase that he prays to ‘God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ in Col 1:3 is a clear statement that he views Jesus as God’s Son, a statement which we can all too easily gloss over because it’s almost what we’re expecting to read) - whether in a recognised quiet time, on the bus or at the grocery store - but which is coupled with thanksgiving in the following verse where he writes (I Thess 5:18) that
‘...in every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you’
Colwright, however, sees the word ‘always’ as indicating
‘...regularity, not that such prayers occupied all Paul’s waking hours; he does not pray haphazardly or only when the mood takes him, but keeps regular hours of prayer (probably morning, noon and evening)...’
but this seems to be going too far to tying Paul down to a prayer regime in which he serves the Gospel. There’s no doubt in my own mind that he would have chosen to make time each day for prayer even when the demands of the day seemed to press in upon him, but to limit the all-inclusive nature of the word to ‘three times a day’ seems somewhat restrictive.
Prayer with thanksgiving is not only what Paul would urge believers to adopt (as he does later in Col 4:2) but something which he himself uses as a methodology (for want of a better word - for it implies something like an automotive response with no heed to the emotions of a man’s heart) as he prays constantly for the churches of which he knows their existence and spiritual health. He uses the ‘formula’ of prayer with thanksgiving in the opening remarks of six of his letters including this one (Eph 1:16, Phil 1:3-4, Col 1:3, I Thess 1:2, II Tim 1:3, Philemon 4).
Perhaps part of the RSV’s reasoning for such a translation is that the thought of constant thanksgiving for the recipients of the letter occurs in other places (I Cor 1:4, Eph 1:16, I Thess 2:13, II Thess 1:3, 2:13, Philemon 4) but such a continual action must surely be coupled with continual prayer through which thanksgiving is offered to God the Father but which also stimulates Paul into a deeper concern to pray for the fellowship or individual in question.
It must also be remembered that the letter opens with the statement (Col 1:3 - my italics)
‘We thank God...’
which joins Timothy with Paul in the opening verses (Col 1:1). Paul may take on personal responsibility for a lot of the following letter (when it changes to ‘I’ in Col 1:23, for example, and he defines who the ‘I’ refers to immediately) but, at the very start, Timothy’s hand in the writing is evidenced in the use of the word.
Paul thanks God for the Colossians in two specific areas - because of what he’s heard about both their faith in Jesus Christ and of their love for all the believers (Col 1:4), something which springs out of the hope which is laid up for them in Heaven (Col 1:5a).
These three characteristics - faith, love and hope - will now be dealt with individually.
Faith, love and hope
The reason for thanksgiving is given in these couple of verses where Paul and Timothy write that it’s because (my italics)
‘...we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love which you have for all the saints because of the hope laid up for you in heaven’
where the final of the three words seems to be, rather, an explanation for the Colossians’ possession of the first two instead of a reason for the thanksgiving. Colwright, however, sees even the third description as being a reason for Paul’s thanksgiving. While this is, no doubt, true because it’s the basis upon which their faith and love is built, it reads more like an explanatory note which defines where both faith and love have sprung from (I’ll deal more fully with this later under the third of the words).
Although we’ll go on to look at these three words in the next sections, we should note that this isn’t the only place where they occur in close proximity (and other commentators - notably Colbrien - provide a list of other verses where they exist within ten verses of one another) even though they appear to convey slightly different concepts where they occur.
In another introduction to one of Paul’s letters, he comments that he remembers (I Thess 1:2-3 - my italics)
‘...your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’
before God the Father in prayer which seems to be the reason also for his thanksgiving for the people in question. Probably the most memorised verse of Scripture where these three occur is I Cor 13:13 where Paul concludes his definition and description of ‘love’ by noting that
‘...faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’
So that I don’t bore the reader (hey! Wake up! It isn’t that bad!), the other Scriptures where the three words lie in close proximity can be found in 1 Thess 5:8, Gal 5:5-6, Heb 6:10-12, 10:22-24 and I Peter 1:21-22. It seems a fair comment to make, then, that faith, hope and love were considered to be almost a ‘trinity’ or ‘triad’ of attitudes which were an integral part of the believer’s walk.
Though, today, we might think of evangelization, regular attendance at the local church’s meetings and the consistent donation of money toward the ‘Lord’s work’, the early church seem to have had a much more basic expectation for believers.
They looked for the reality of all these three, that they were consistently increasing with time and, consequently, that works would spring from the possessors of these to honour Jesus in all things.
The construction of the phrase here is necessary to be understood before an explanation of what Paul means can be appreciated. The RSV translates the first reason for Paul and Timothy’s thanksgiving directed towards God for the Colossians (my italics) as being because
‘...we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus’
where we’d normally accept the sentence as implying a belief in Jesus and, if we understand the active nature of faith, probably realise that we aren’t thinking of some mental recognition that Jesus has done a work on our behalf but of an active participation in it which has effects on the possessor’s own life and conduct. As Colwright notes
‘Faith is not just...any religious belief...[it] is more than just mental assent to truths’
It’s this sort of idea which would also be conveyed in other NT passages where the Greek lying behind the sentence is similar (Gal 3:26, Eph 1:15, I Tim 3:13, II Tim 1:13, 3:15) - even though some translations do their best to hide it!. The main point of note, however, is in the Greek employed as the basis for the above italicised translation, a combination of the word for ‘faith’ (Strongs Greek number 4102) with a Greek preposition (Strongs Greek number 1722) which prohibits the meaning described above as being the one intended by the writer.
Ephlin notes the question which needs to be answered in its occurrence in Eph 1:15 when he writes
‘...is “in the Lord Jesus” here the object of the readers’ faith...or does it denote the sphere in which their faith is exercised...?’
NIDNTT (vol 3 page 1191) notes that the main figurative use for the preposition which follows the word for ‘faith’ is to denote
‘...the sphere within which some action occurs or the element or reality in which something is contained or consists’
and, when commenting on the phrase translated as ‘in Christ’, they note (vol 2 page 545) that it
‘...speaks of the existence of the believer in the sphere of the love of God’
though this statement should be modified seeing as it occurs within the article defining and expounding the concept of ‘love’.
However, to base an answer solely on etymological considerations would be incorrect and we must turn our attention to other places where both Greek words noted above are used in the NT to see which option holds true. Some of the translations tend to obscure the underlying Greek words used so it’s necessary to rearrange the texts in some places to be able to comprehend the importance of the phrase in which they occur. II Thess 1:4 (my italics) runs
‘Therefore we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions which you are enduring’
which is probably the most obvious for answering the question. It certainly can’t be imagined here that Paul would be saying that the object of the Thessalonians’ faith was their persecutions and afflictions and the context demands that his meaning is that the faith they have was active both in and through the time of trial that they’ve been experiencing. So, too, in II Thess 1:11 where it’s noted that the apostle prays that God
‘...may fulfil every good resolve and work of faith [in] His power’
and, in I Cor 12:9, where he comments of the gifting of the Holy Spirit and notes one of them as
‘...faith [in] the same Spirit...’
In both places, the context demands that what follows the words isn’t the object of their own faith but the area in which their faith is to operate, perhaps both also able to be interpreted as
‘faith made effective by...’
The only other two places where this construction occurs are in Eph 3:17 and I Tim 3:9 where more literal translations would be
‘...that Christ may dwell through faith in your hearts’
‘...they must hold the mystery of the faith in a clear conscience’
In both places, it’s obvious that faith can’t be centred in the object which follows and is better understood to be operating within its boundaries. Therefore Colbruce is correct in stating that, in Col 1:4, the construction
‘...indicates not so much that Christ Jesus is the object of their faith as that He is the living environment within which their faith is exercised’
so that such a faith would be impossible to exist without some sort of unity within Him for it relies for its true expression upon the inspiration and control of Jesus Christ. Colcar comments that it
‘...does not mean in this context that Christ is the object of their faith, though this is of course true, for in that case the prepositions [eis] or [epi] would be required...He is the sphere in which they move...the faith which they exhibit draws its vitality from their link with Christ. The exercise of that faith is controlled by their union with Him’
A believer’s faith, then, is to operate within the boundaries of Jesus Christ - all that He is and all that His will is. The Colossians certainly had a ‘belief’ in the death and resurrection of Christ but their faith was operating within Him - that is, their faith wasn’t belief in an object or doctrine but a living reality experiencing the fulness of Christ - consequently doctrine came and belief in the Person was an unavoidable fact because of their experience of faith.
Faith isn’t static, therefore, but active - it must produce a result (James 2:17ff). Events must take place that are a direct result of faith operating within the boundaries of Jesus Christ. Many people who ‘believe’ in Him don’t have faith in Him - their faith doesn’t operate within Him but is centred in something or someone else so that they rarely experience the fulness of all that He has to offer them.
Similarly, many say that they are
‘...believing God for such and such’
but, when it doesn’t come about, it’s evident that their faith wasn’t written within the boundaries of Christ but within their own desire. The Colossians, however, were moving in the will and purpose of Jesus Himself and were, therefore, following His direction as they continued to allow their faith to operate within the correct boundaries.
Paul and Timothy’s second reason for their thanksgiving before God in prayer is noted as being that (Col 1:4b) they
‘...have heard...of the love which you have for all the saints’
a trait which is also exemplified in the life of other churches and individuals (Eph 1:15, Philemon 1:5, Heb 6:10, I Thess 4:9-10, II Thess 1:3, I Peter 1:22, I John 3:14) and which seems to have been a primary characteristic of the early Church - not just one which came as a surprise to the believers who began following Jesus but as one which was expected to be demonstrated amongst them.
As I noted on my web page dealing with the subject of the love of God, the correct word to use for the love which is expressed between friends would be transliterated phileo (Strongs Greek number 5368) and it would be the one expected to have been employed here by Paul and Timothy if a reference to the commitment to one another was in mind that flowed out of a natural affection and affinity.
That the word employed is agape (Strongs Greek number 26) - the word which was taken by the NT writers and applied to the love of God - hints at a totally different source for the emotion which springs not from the natural circumstances of the believers but from a supernatural origin in God Himself.
This comes home to the reader even more in Col 1:8 where the writers observe the work of Epaphras amongst the Colossians and then go on to state (my italics) that he’s
‘...made known to us your love in the Spirit’
where the italicised words take us back to a similar construction of the first part of Col 1:4. We noted there that the preposition from which the English word ‘in’ is obtained has the effect of pointing towards their faith as operating within the boundaries of Jesus Himself and not that Jesus was the object of their faith as is often interpreted
When we come to Col 1:8 - which similarly talks about love as does Col 1:5b - we can note that the writer is commenting that what’s been observed is the Colossians’ love which operates within the bounds of the Holy Spirit - that is, the love which they’re expressing through themselves isn’t something which has as its source a characteristic of their inner life which was there naturally, but the expression of the Divine gift which causes the love of God to overflow from within them to find expression all around - though specifically Paul notes that their love is demonstrating itself in their response to their fellow believers (Col 1:5b).
This love, then, is a reflection of God’s love, a love which gives itself irrespective of any merit which is observable in the object and which seeks to give to the other rather than to receive. As such, the ‘unlovely’ can be accepted, whereas the concept inherent in the expected word phileo is of two people who find that they suit one another and so commit themselves to each other as friends.
Friendships obviously break down but, when agape is the basis of the relationship, a break of the commitment of one towards the other is only possible if God’s love changes or if one of the parties decides to repudiate God’s love and to move back into the natural.
This love is obviously not an emotional response to something which is seen in the other person but an expression of God’s love which continues to overflow to others even when that person might not naturally find favour before them.
In the early years of the Church, the testimony of what was taking place in the city of Jerusalem was that such care for one another had already become a major part of what it meant to be a believer and follower after Jesus Christ.
Jesus had spoken concerning this during the final evening before the crucifixion (John 15:12-17) but, after the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, it became a trait of the early Church which was demonstrated in practical action. Acts 2:44-46 notes that the believers had everything in common and that
‘...they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need’
echoed in Luke’s testimony in Acts 4:32-35 which leads on to the warning story of Ananias and Sapphira that, even amongst such devotion to reflect the character of God to one another, there were still individuals who failed to pay heed to the need for honesty in their dealings with God.
Love, therefore, is one of the demonstrable characteristics of true fellowship - not a love which divides itself up into cliques and factions (of fellowships within the fellowship) but which is concerned to look out even for the unlovely and to meet the needs which arise in their lives.
The first question to ask here is whether the concept of ‘hope’ stands alone as one of the characteristics which Paul and Timothy are thanking God for (Col 1:3-4) or whether it’s the basis out of which both love and faith spring.
Initially, Colwright comments (at the start of Col 1:4) that
‘[Faith, hope and love] are the things in the Colossian church for which he thanks God...’
so that he appears to see three prime elements upon which Paul responds with thanksgiving to God in prayer. However, he also speaks about the ambiguity of the original at the start of Col 1:5 and his above quote seems to go against what he follows as the meaning of Col 1:5 where he sees hope being the basis upon which both faith and love have been built.
It’s not without significance that, in Col 1:23 (my italics - Cp Col 1:27, 3:4), Paul observes that it’s important that the believers don’t shift
‘...from the hope of the gospel which you heard...’
where the inference appears to be that the Gospel was declared to them primarily as a message of hope for the future rather than simply as a change of life in the present. This idea also follows on from Col 1:5a in 1:5b-6 where Paul continues talking about the hope, writing (my italics) that
‘Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel which has come to you’
It would be wrong to infer, therefore, that the mesage which had been brought to them had solely been the proclamation of hope for the future but that it contained this element which appears to have been seized upon by the hearers. It’s difficult to know exactly what Epaphras preached except that it would have been in accordance with the Gospel but the RSV’s rendering of Col 1:4-5a is logically correct - it was the grasping of the hope in the future which had led them on to respond with both faith and love in the present. Therefore Colbrien makes a personal translation of the opening phrase of the verse as
‘Both [faith and love] spring from the hope...’
and Colcar interprets the construction at the opening of Col 1:5 to imply that
‘...the christian’s hope is the motive power behind his faith and his love’
so that what takes place in the present (faith and love) is certain because of the assurance of what has been promised in the future. After all, if there’s no reason to hope for a better life after the one which now exists, where’s the point of living according to the will of God and of caring for the needs of others? Far better in that case to live selfishly and ignore the plight and needs of others. As Colcar observes correctly
‘The only logical outcome of a life which is not dominated by the christian hope is “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die”’
so that the reader seems to be forced to accept that the hope in the future was what had caused the Colossians to give themselves over to demonstrate faith and love in action.
The subject of ‘hope’ isn’t a vast one in the NT as one would have expected from the statements here that it lay at the heart of the Gospel (in all, the noun appears just 54 times and the verb 32 times in the Textus Receptus, the basis of the AV) but it’s plain on at last fifteen occasions (Acts 23:6, 24:15, Rom 5:2, 8:20, 8:24, 8:25, II Cor 3:12, Gal 3:12, Eph 1:18, Col 1:5, 1:27, Titus 1:2, 2:13, 3:7, I Peter 1:3 - it’s also implied in three places in Acts 26:6, 26:7 and 28:20) that it refers to something which was expected to take place in the ‘distant’ future - though ‘distant’ is too strong a word for the early Church seem to have been assured that the return of Jesus was to have taken place within their own generation (see my notes on Matthew chapter 24 for an explanation of why this didn’t materialise).
In the other occasions where it’s used, it isn’t always defined by context and the nature of its meaning in these fifteen usages seems to be the best one available to give it. In the current passage, it’s plain that it refers to a future time for the writers talk of the hope being
‘...laid up for you in heaven’
and possibly defined for us later in Col 1:27 when Paul speaks about
‘...the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory’
and which is echoed in Rom 5:2 where Paul speaks of the present rejoicing on earth as a response to the hope of sharing the glory of God in the future. That is, both the Colossian and Roman believers were projected forward in their thinking to a day when the glory of God would clothe them, a day synonymous with the resurrection from the dead of all believers and the securing of eternal life. Therefore hope is linked with the former (Acts 23:6, 24:15) and can even be spoken of as springing from the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the first fruits of the dead which assures believers that a future resurrection of all men and women must take place (I Peter 1:3).
It also occurs in the context of the latter (Eph 1:18, Titus 1:2, 3:7) and, as both are plainly thought to occur at the return of Jesus Christ, the hope is also spoken of as centring in that event itself with all that it implies (Titus 2:13).
Hope is also linked with the believer’s hope of righteousness when the imperfection of their own life will be swallowed up in the perfection of the final gift of the believer’s inheritance (Gal 5:5, Eph 1:18). But, in that day, the creation also is expected to be released from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:20, 24-25), a statement which cuts across the clear assertion of natural evolution.
This appears to have been the reason which God had used in Epaphras’ preaching that had caused a response in his listeners and had pushed them to respond to the message of the Gospel. There’s no reason to doubt that the forgiveness of personal sin was part and parcel of the message which was brought to them but, for those at Colossae, it was the hope of the resurrection of the dead which had been the foundation upon which both faith and love had sprung up within them - and, even then, as a gift of God.
Perhaps one of the main reasons why the present day Church isn’t as active for Jesus - demonstrated in active faith and love towards fellow believers in its corporate life (and in individual lives) - is that it doesn’t live in the hope of a share in the glory of God but is overly concerned with the present.
After all, if our hope is solely in the promised inheritance, the material objects present around us become futile and worthless when it’s certain that all will fade away or be consumed before the presence of God (II Peter 3:10-12). It seems to me that, if the Church had a living belief in the future inheritance and not a mere cerebral assent to the doctrine, we’d see a much greater demonstration of love for the brethren and faith in action.
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