The final verse of the letter to Colossae is a short, three statement, hand-written note which does very little by way of introducing new doctrine or new ideas which aren’t already present in the main body of the letter. Many commentators call these final words ‘doxologies’ - a word defined by the Dictionary (yes, I had to look it up - it’s not a word that I use in normal day to day speech) as meaning
‘...a hymn or liturgical formula ascribing glory to God’
As can be seen by the content of this verse, therefore, Paul’s final words shouldn’t strictly be thought of as a doxology for God isn’t so much as mentioned. The other ‘final words’ in the NT are dealt with somewhat differently by the RSV who sometimes feel the need to separate them into sections with a line dividing them from the main body of the letter and, other times, they seem not to notice any change in tack by the apostle and run them all together.
To be fair, it’s not always easy to see why they should be separated from the main letter but I’ve taken their insertion of a space - and the lack of it - to divide the end words into three distinct groups.
The first are those which have no recognised doxological ending by the RSV (II Corinthians, I Thessalonians, I Timothy, Titus, Philemon) even though the blessing of ‘grace’ appears in each of these five letters as the final - or very nearly the final - word (II Cor 13:14, I Thess 5:28, I Tim 5:21b, Titus 3:15b, Philemon 25). Perhaps the RSV felt that the brevity of the last note was such that, from purely aesthetic reasons, they felt that it would look a bit strange.
The second section represent those places where the RSV breaks the end words with a clear dividing space. There are four such sections as these (Rom 16:25-27, Eph 6:21-24, Phil 4:21-23, II Tim 4:19-22) and, out of all the ends of Paul’s letters, it’s only the one in Romans which contains no reference to grace and it stands out prominently. Rommor notes concerning this passage that
‘The doxology is found in some manuscripts at the end of chapter 14, by one at the end of chapter 15, by some at this point [where it appears in the RSV], by quite a few both here and at the end of chapter 14...while some omit it altogether’
Although this doesn’t explain the absence of any mention of ‘grace’, if omitted from the letter altogether, Paul’s list of personnel would hang in the air rather uneasily (Rom 16:21-23) if it wasn’t for the mention of ‘grace’ in Rom 16:20 which would more likely have been Paul’s originally intended ending before he realised the need to mention a few of the personnel who were with him. The doxology of Rom 16:25-27 rounds off the letter fairly well, therefore, and seems necessary to bring the letter to a sufficient conclusion.
The third section are those places where the RSV also breaks with a clear gap but where Paul picks up the pen to add some comments from his own hand. There are just four of these in the NT (I Cor 16:21-24, Gal 6:11-18, Col 4:18, II Thess 3:17-18) and the one in Colossians is by far the briefest of them all - Colbrien asserts that II Cor 10:1ff is also a place where Paul picks up the pen to write his own message but the style is similar to Col 1:23 where he again uses the ‘I, Paul’ statement and it’s not certain that such a place is where we should think of the apostle of writing in his own hand.
Apart from Rom 16:22, these four places are the clearest indication that Paul had his letters dictated rather than sitting down himself with a quill and a scroll to put his own thoughts onto parchment.
Before we look at Col 4:18, we should try and understand why the apostle should consider doing this. The second section noted above could very easily be thought of as the place where the apostle picked up the pen and added the final words himself because of the RSV’s inserted break but, if that was the case, he chose not to mention that the sudden change in handwriting represented his own commitment to the writing of what followed.
But the circumstances surrounding the writing of the four ‘personalised’ letters, their content or the people to whom they’re addressed seem to give no indication that such a note was what was required. For example, why should Paul include such a hand-written note in one of his letters to both Corinth and Thessalonica and not in the others? And why would the entire area of Galatia need an extensive personalised note when he was insisting that they repent from their legalism to once more be converted to Christ (Gal 4:19)?
The most important verse in all the four passages is II Thess 3:17 where, after stating that he was writing with his own hand, he adds
‘...This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write’
which seems to indicate that the apostle always picked up the quill and wrote something because it was an authenticating mark that the recipients could trust as making what had preceded it genuine. That II Thessalonians was in need of authentication is confirmed earlier in the letter (II Thess 2:1-2) where Paul seems to note the existence of other letters which appeared to be from him but which were forgeries.
Where the RSV adds a line break in the ‘other’ letters, therefore, is purely subjective but we should think of part of the end of each and every letter as bearing the authentic handwriting of Paul which, to those who knew him, was sufficient grounds for accepting the letter as being genuine.
The only possible exception here is the letter to Philemon which appears to have been entirely written by the apostle because it was expected to be short and needed to be personal (Philemon 19) - it would have appeared to have been less than so had Paul dictated the main body and added just a few notes at the end.
But as to why he should draw attention to his own handwriting in particular letters and not in others is unknown - perhaps there’s no explanation which fits each case and, if we try and define good reason for each, we might be falsely attributing Paul with an intention that wasn’t his. After all, he might just have mentioned that he was now using the quill because he wanted to.
Having said that, there seems to be something more than just a need for authentication in his last note to Colossae. These were a people to whom Paul had not yet come to minister and of whom they’d only heard stories, no doubt. Even though there were people amongst them who’d met Paul - Philemon is definitely one and both Nympha (Col 4:15 - though she was more likely to have been a resident of Laodicea) and Archippus (Col 4:17) were probably another two - the drawing attention to a personal note said
‘Look! I care about you enough to add a few comments myself’
He could well have added a lengthy note (Philemon which, I believe, was written at the same time seems to have been totally hand-written) but the short line was all he deemed sufficient for the task. Perhaps the apostle’s own writing was sufficiently large to be noted easily when compared to the normal style of the amanuenses that served him (Gal 6:11) - perhaps, though, we should read nothing into it for he notes in the same letter (Gal 4:13) that
‘...it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first’
and that it seems to have been tied up with something to do with his eyesight (Gal 4:15). If this had had a lasting effect on him, it might even have been true that he wrote large to be able to see what he was writing! Perhaps he was also only ‘half-literate’ in the writing of Greek (he was more naturally gifted to have written Aramaic) so that his letters were always deliberate rather than a demonstration of one skilled at committing the language to parchment - his personal note to Philemon and his extensive note at the end of Galatians here, however, would point us away from this because it would be the more natural for him to limit himself to a few, concise words. And, again, perhaps he increased the size of his own handwriting for emphasis and wanted to draw attention to it, Colbrien stating that it added special emphasis to what had been said.
Whatever the exact reasons, he certainly seems to realise that what he’s about to write (Gal 6:11) will be large for he opens his own note with the intention of drawing attention to it. So, unfortunately, no definitive reason can be offered as to why he should write in such large letters in his personal end notes.
Concluding, we should note that, although Paul chose to authenticate his letters that those who knew his handwriting might verify them as genuine, the present day reader is often stuck with the impossible task of knowing when Paul picked up the quill himself and began to write.
Having looked briefly at the final words of Paul’s letters, we can turn our attention even more briefly to the statements that he makes to the church at Colossae.
The mention of the ‘greeting’ (Strongs Greek number 783) is from the same word group that Paul’s used consistently from Col 4:10 onwards to speak of those with him saying a ‘hello’ to the recipients and in his own personal greetings to those in the fellowship to whom he’s writing.
It means much more than simply ‘hello’ as I noted here when the word was first used. I defined it as having the underlying concept of ‘embrace’, Kittels noting that it was
‘...very important as an expression of affection’
so that those who are recipients of one of the apostle’s letters can be assured of the strong feeling with which not only he but those with him hold them in. But the reader is somewhat perplexed at the way the RSV runs for it appears that the apostle intends to write a greeting but then neglects to do so for there’s nothing which follows which could be understood to be representative of such.
In the ‘hand-written’ endings, however, this is equally true and he notes on two other occasions that he’s writing the greeting with his own hand without necessarily indicating its substance (I Cor 16:21, II Thess 3:17). It seems correct to state, therefore, that the mention of the greeting was all that was necessary and that the word conveyed all that was required in the first century.
There are two further notes that Paul makes after his greeting. Firstly, he asks the Colossians to
‘Remember my fetters’
which is the first and only place where he deliberately seems to ask for their support in his imprisonment. He asks for prayer for the further advancement of the Gospel (Col 4:3-4) and will even mention that he’s now imprisoned (Col 4:10) but the thought of the fellowship supporting him in his incarceration hasn’t occurred to him until he’s about to close.
And, even now, Paul isn’t concerned to ask that he might be released from prison but, rather, that they might remember where he is and act accordingly. Colwright sees it as
‘...a reminder of his paradoxical authority...’
where imprisonment for the sake of the Gospel is what proves the genuineness of his faith and his calling. This is reading too much into the note, I feel, and the sole purpose of mentioning it at this point isn’t to underscore that they should pay heed to how he’s written to them but to remind them of his situation and ask for their prayers. Colbrien notes that such an assertion about authority comes from one of the meanings of the Greek word translated ‘Remember’ (Strongs Greek number 3421) but, alternatively, that
‘...one Biblical meaning [of the word] is that of calling something to God’s remembrance or of mentioning something to Him in prayer...’
and this is the preferable inference that should be drawn rather than a more cryptic one about his own authority which has gone unmentioned in a clear form throughout his entire letter.
Secondly, and finally, Paul ends with the mention of ‘grace’ (which, as noted above, occurs towards the end of each and every Pauline letter) in a way which is seen as a blessing imparted to those who either read his words or listen to them being read out - in modern day language, we’d call it a ‘wish’ but I hesitate using the word because many in the Church would think that I mean by it something supernatural that’s opposed to God, which I don’t. He writes
‘Grace be with you’
in a reminder, no doubt, of the basis of their reception of Jesus Christ. I’ve defined the concept of ‘grace’ here where it first occurred and where Paul and Timothy open their letter with a similar blessing coupled with ‘peace’ and where it was emphasised as being ‘from God our Father’
Simply, ‘grace’ is ‘unmerited favour’ seen primarily in the way that Jesus died on the cross for men and women who didn’t deserve such a reconciliation with God. Here, Paul blesses them with continued favour and desires that they might continue to enjoy and be the recipients of the provision of the Father.
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