Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Pauline Letters (Conclusion)

The Remaining Pauline Letters

Having examined the key passages in the five Pauline letters where eschatology features most prominently—1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans—it now remains to survey the eschatological references in the remaining letters. I begin with the two letters where Paul’s authorship is undisputed—Galatians and Philippians (Philemon contains no relevant references).


Galatians is not so replete with eschatological passages as are the other major Pauline letters. The primary reason for this surely is the single-minded attention Paul gives to the theological and religious-cultural questions surrounding the relationship of believers to the Torah and the Old Covenant. Even so, there is certainly an eschatological aspect to this area of Paul’s thought, as can be glimpsed by a brief survey of the most relevant passages.

Galatians 1:4

The central tenet of Paul’s soteriology was that the sacrificial death of Jesus freed humankind from bondage under the enslaving power of sin. According to this basic view, the world, in the present Age, is under the control of sin and evil. Paul expresses this clearly here when he states that Jesus gave himself “over our sins, so that he might take us out of th(is) evil Age”. Traditional Jewish eschatology drew a dividing line (conceptually) between “this Age” (o( ai)w\n ou!to$) and “the Age (that is) coming” (o( ai)w\n me/llwn). Paul frequently uses the expression “this Age” (Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6, 8; 3:18-19; 2 Cor 4:4; also Eph 2:1-2), with the implication that this current Age is especially corrupt and dominated by evil. The Johannine writings express much the same idea, though with different terminology (1 John 5:19, etc). It is a fundamental tenet in eschatological thought that the time in which people are living, being close to the end of the Age (or cycle of Ages), is more widely corrupt and wicked than the times past—indeed, such wickedness is a sign that the end is near.

Galatians 3:22ff; 4:5ff

In parallel with the idea that humankind, in the present Age, is in bondage to sin, Paul also teaches that people are also in bondage under the Law. This juxtaposition of the Law and sin is one of the most controversial aspects of Paul’s thought (discussed at length in the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”); and yet he expresses the association clearly enough both in Romans and here throughout Galatians. It is stated most precisely as part of the line of argument in chapter 3 (vv. 22ff). The binding power of the Torah is part of the Old Covenant, which is rooted in the present Age, dominated as it is by sin and evil. The coming of Jesus, with his sacrificial, atoning work, ushers in a New Covenant and the beginning of a New Age (i.e. the “Age to come”). But this is a “realized” eschatology—the New Age is experienced now, in the present, only by believers in Christ, and only through the presence of the Spirit, as Paul describes, especially, in 4:5-6ff. The bondage under the “Law” is not limited to Israelites and Jews, but applies universally to all humankind (cf. how Paul presents this in 4:8-11).

Other References

Several other references with eschatological significance may be noted:


We may note first the references to the “day of (Jesus) Christ” in Phil 1:6, 10, and 2:16; this is a Christian development of the Old Testament motif of the “day of YHWH”, when He will appear to bring Judgment on a particular nation or people. By the first-century A.D., the idea was thoroughly and profoundly eschatological—i.e. the end-time Judgment on the nations—with God’s presence in the Judgment filled by his Anointed (Messianic) representative. Thus, for early Christians, it was Jesus Christ who will act as Judge, overseeing the Judgment (Acts 17:31, etc); this will take place upon his return to earth at the end-time. For Paul’s use of this idiom (“the day [of Christ]”) elsewhere, cf. 1 Thess 5:2-5; 2 Thess 1:10; 2:2-3; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:13; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; Rom 2:16, etc. It is typically coupled with the idea of believers being able to present themselves with confidence before Christ at his coming, and so here in the three references in Philippians. The climactic lines of the “Christ-hymn” (2:10-11) similarly allude to the role of the exalted Christ as ruler and judge over all.

The Judgment itself (i.e. the judgment on the wicked) is alluded to in 1:28 and 3:19, emphasizing again how the idea of salvation, for early Christians, was primarily eschatological—that is, we are saved from the coming Judgment. Moreover, for believers, salvation also involves entering (and inheriting) the Kingdom of God (cf. above), which entails the idea of receiving a heavenly reward. Paul’s repeated references to this reward that awaits the faithful believer, is very much reflective of the early Christian eschatology—cf. 3:8ff, 14. A more direct promise and eschatological declaration is found in 2:15 (with echoes of Dan 12:3):

“…that you should come to be without fault and without ‘horns’, offspring [i.e. children] of God without (any) flaw, in the middle of a twisted (Age) of coming-to-be and (those) having been turned throughout, among whom you will shine forth as lights in the world!”

The future resurrection of believers is specifically emphasized in 3:10-11, drawing upon the familiar Pauline motif of believers’ participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus (‘dying and rising with Christ’). The eschatological orientation continues in verses 17-21, warning again of the impending Judgment (v. 19) and the heavenly reward that awaits for those believers who remain faithful (vv. 20-21). This promise of final/future reward is expressed primarily in terms of the resurrection, along with the motif of the ‘heavenly city’ (cf. on Gal 4:26, above):

“For our citizenship [poli/teuma] begins under [i.e. has its existence] in the heavenly (place)s, out of which also we look to receive from (God) a savior—(our) Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed—who will change the shape of the body of our lowliness, (to be) formed together in the body of his honor/splendor [do/ca], according to the (power) working in (him) th(at makes) him to be able even to set all (thing)s in order under him.” (vv. 20-21)

The end-time appearance, or return, of Jesus is clearly indicated here, which will coincide with the resurrection/transformation of our bodies (1 Thess 4:4-17; 1 Cor 15:23ff); it is also alluded to in the short declaration in 4:5b: “The Lord is near [e)ggu/$]”. To be sure, this is another reference to the imminent eschatology of Paul, which he shared with most believers of the time, as I have noted repeatedly; on the use of adverb e)ggu/$ (“near”) to signify this, cf. the earlier article in this series on the imminent eschatology of early Christians.

Colossians and Ephesians

Many critical commentators view both Colossians and Ephesians as pseudonymous. For my part, I accept Colossians as authentically Pauline (on objective grounds), with no real reservations. However, the situation with Ephesians is a bit more complicated, with more questions that could legitimately be raised in terms of the vocabulary, style, etc, of the letter. Even so, the eschatology of Ephesians does not appear to differ markedly from either Colossians or the other undisputed letters. Therefore, all other critical questions (regarding authorship) aside, it is proper to examine the eschatological passages of Ephesians here together with those of Colossians.

The exordium and opening section(s) of Colossians (1:3-29) are full of eschatological references and allusions which reflect other key passages (already discussed) elsewhere in Paul’s letters. As we have seen, the thanksgiving aspect of the exordium allows Paul the opportunity to encourage believers to remain faithful, in light of the promise of the heavenly reward that awaits them. This is emphasized here in 1:5, 12:

“…through the hope th(at is) being stretched out (waiting) for you in the heavenly (place)s” (v. 5)
“…giving (thanks) to the Father for (His) good favor, to the (One) (hav)ing made us fit unto the portion of the lot [klh=ro$, i.e. inheritance] of the holy (one)s in the light” (v. 12)

The end-time (and afterlife) Judgment scene, along with the role of the Anointed Jesus as Judge (cf. above), is likewise alluded to in 1:18, 22:

“…and he [i.e. Jesus] is the head of the body of the (ones) called out [e)kklhsi/a], the (one) who is (himself the) beginning, (the one) produced first [prwto/toko$] out of the dead, (so) that he should come to be (the one) being [i.e. who is] first in all (things).” (v. 18)
“…and now he (has) made (things) different (for you) from (what they were before) [vb a)pokatalla/ssw], in the body of his flesh, through (his) death, to make you (to) stand alongside (him) in his sight, holy and without fault and without (any reason) to call (you) in (to judgment) [a)ne/gklhto$].” (v. 22)

Even though Colossians 1-2 indicates a belief in the pre-existent deity of Jesus, here his position as (heavenly) ruler and judge is expressed more traditionally, in terms of his resurrection and exaltation. Moreover, it is his sacrificial death which enables believers to stand before him in holiness (at the Judgment). These are familiar Pauline themes, as is the idea in 1:26f, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a secret (musth/rion) that has been kept hidden throughout the Ages, until the present time—cf. Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 2:1, 7; and, similarly, with special emphasis, in Eph 3:3-6, 9. This idea is strongly eschatological, i.e. that believers are living at the onset of a New Age, with the implication that the current Age, with all that has gone before, is coming to an end.

Colossians 3:1-4

The most prominent eschatological passage in Colossians is 3:1-4. As in the exordium, Paul ties his exhortation for believers—that they should live in holiness and faithful devotion—to the promise of Jesus’ end-time return. He makes use of the traditional concept of believers being gathered to Jesus, at his return (1 Thess 4:14-18; cp. Mark 13:26-27 par, etc), but deepens the imagery through the theological (and Christological) motif of beliefs being united with Jesus (“in Christ”). Note how this added dimension gives to the traditional eschatology a profound new meaning:

“So, if you were raised together with Yeshua, you must seek the (thing)s above, the (place at) which the Anointed (One) is sitting on (the) giving [i.e. right] (hand) of God—you must set (your) mind (on) the (thing)s above, not (on) the (thing)s upon the earth. For you died away, and your life has been hidden with the Anointed, in God; (and) when the Anointed should shine forth, (he who is) our life, then you also will shine forth with him in honor/splendor.”

It is beautiful indeed how Paul weaves into the idea of Jesus’ return the (baptismal) imagery of believers participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:3-4 etc, and earlier here in Col 2:11-13, 20). To use the familiar Pauline language, believers are “in Christ”, which means that, in a real sense, we are with him where he is now—at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. So, too, we will be with him when he appears on earth at the end-time. We might even say that we will be meeting ourselves, not in a concrete metaphysical sense, but in terms of a full realization, and fulfillment, of what we are in Christ (for a similar idea, expressed rather differently, cf. 1 John 2:28-3:3).

Additional References in Ephesians

As noted above, Ephesians restates many of the same ideas and points of emphasis in Colossians, and this is also true in terms of the eschatology of the letters. For example, Eph 1:8 more or less says the same as Col 1:5, 12 (cf. above), bringing together the idea of the “hope” (e)lpi/$) that waits for believers in heaven, along with the heavenly reward that we will inherit (as our “lot”, klh=ro$, klhronomi/a). This also is part of the exordium (and thanksgiving) in Ephesians, which resembles that of Colossians in some of its wording and theological expression, such as the emphasis on Christ’s position as ruler and head over all things (1:20-23), including his role in the Judgment at the end of this Age (v. 21, cp. Col 1:18, 22, above). A different sort of emphasis is found in 1:10-12ff, which blends together “realized” and future eschatology, drawing upon the (baptismal) imagery of being “sealed” with the Spirit; this is expressed in unquestionably Pauline terms:

    • In Christ (“in him”) we have already (i.e. now, in the present) obtained our inheritance (vb klhro/w)—v. 11, “realized” eschatology
    • Yet in Christ (“in him”) we still hope for what is to come (v. 12), our “seal” of the Spirit being a promise (and guarantee) of our full inheritance (klhronomi/a)—v. 14, future eschatology
      (cf. also 4:30 where the Spirit-seal is said to be specifically for “the day of loosing from [bondage]”, i.e. the day of Christ and his return)

We may also see an echo of Col 3:1-4 (cf. above) in Eph 2:6-7, where we find the same basic idea of believers being present (now) with Jesus in the heavenly places, with the promise that we will experience this more fully “in the coming Ages”. Admittedly, the eschatological sense of this is not as strong in Ephesians as in Colossians, but it is still clearly discernable. A different way of expressing the (future) realization of our identity in Christ is found in Eph 4:13, with wording that is more distinctive of Ephesians:

“…until we all should meet down (together) into the unity of the trust and the knowledge (we have) about the Son of God, (and so) into (being) a complete man—into the measure of (the) stature of the fullness of the Anointed”

Another image of this completeness of believers in Christ, only to be realized at the end-time, and in the Ages to come, is that of the bride presented to her husband in perfect holiness and purity (5:27, cf. 2 Cor 11:2, and compare Rev 19:7ff).

Two other passages in Ephesians have an eschatological emphasis; both are part of a traditional mode of ethical instruction and exhortation, urging believers to continued faithfulness:

    • 5:5, 8-14—The use of light vs. darkness imagery, along with much of the wording, is quite similar to Paul’s instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-11 (cf. the earlier article on this passage), though perhaps with somewhat less eschatological urgency
    • 6:12-13ff—The characterization of the present Age as evil and wicked, and that it is all the more so as the end draws closer, is common theme in Jewish and Christian eschatology of the period; the urgency of the instruction here implies that believers are about to enter into an especially intense period of distress and persecution (cf. Mark 13:5-13ff par, and throughout the book of Revelation, etc)

2 Timothy (and the Pastoral Letters)

As with Colossians and Ephesians, there are many questions (and doubts) among scholars regarding the authorship of the Pastoral Letters; many critical commentators consider all three letters to be pseudonymous. I am inclined (on entirely objective grounds) to accept 2 Timothy as authentically Pauline; in my view, the style, wording, points of emphasis, not to mention the personal details, all seem to conform fairly closely with what we find in the other (undisputed) letters. By contrast, 1 Timothy contains many words and phrases, etc, which are atypical of Paul, and so the questions regarding authorship are considerably more significant; the situation with the letter to Titus is harder to judge, due to its relative brevity. As it happens, there are many more eschatological references and allusions in 2 Timothy than there are in 1 Timothy or Titus—a fact which would tend to confirm the authenticity of 2 Timothy, and, perhaps, support the idea that 1 Timothy (and Titus) were written later, and/or by someone other than Paul.

Indeed, as I read 2 Timothy closely, I can find little (if anything) to distinguish the eschatology of the letter as being in any way different from that of Paul’s other letters. The language is generally similar, including the expression “that day”, referring to “the day of Christ”, when the exalted Jesus will appear and God will judge the world through him (cf. above). The specific expression “that day”, also found in 2 Thess 1:10 (cp. “the day” in 1 Thess 5:4; Rom 2:16), occurs here in 2 Tim 1:12, 18 and 4:8.

Also thoroughly Pauline is the idea of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a secret hidden away throughout the Ages, but only revealed (to believers) in the present time—2 Tim 1:9-10, and cf. on Col 1:26f above. The language and wording is quite consistent with Paul’s usage elsewhere, as are the references to the future resurrection and the heavenly reward that awaits believers (2 Tim 2:10, 18). The eschatological dimension to the idea of salvation (2:10) is typical of the earliest Christian period, and tends not to be as prominent in later writings. As for the reference to the resurrection in 2:18, the fact that some might say that it “had already come to be” —that is, it had, somehow, already taken place—demonstrates the prevalence of the same imminent eschatology we see elsewhere in Paul’s letters (and throughout most the New Testament); by contrast, toward the end of the first century A.D. (and thereafter), this sort of imminent expectation begins to disappear from early Christianity (cf. below).

The most extensive eschatological passages in 2 Timothy are the sections of (ethical) instruction in 3:1-9ff and 4:1-5. This parallels similar paraenetic passages in the other letters of Paul, only here the instruction is aimed at the minister (Timothy, in the letter), warning him that, as bad as things might be (in the world) at the moment, they will become even worse as the end draws closer (cf. above on Eph 6:12-13ff). Here is how the instruction begins in 3:1:

“And you must know this: that in (the) last days, moments (when things sink) lower will (soon) stand in (on us)…”

The increasing wickedness and lack of faith in the population at large—including among those claiming to be believers—serves as a clear sign that these are the “last days” and that the end-time is near. The description in vv. 2-5 echoes traditional Jewish and early Christian eschatological narratives (cf. Mark 13:5-13 par), which include the presence of divisions and incursions of false teaching among believers. As an instruction for ministers, this warning against false prophets and teachers is especially appropriate (vv. 6-9). So intense will this be, in the time that is soon coming (4:3f), that many in the congregations may no longer wish to listen to sound and reliable teaching, instead turning away to more superficially attractive or exciting words. In these sorts of warnings, with their eschatological context, the idea of the coming Judgment is never far away (4:1).

By comparison with 2 Timothy, there are few eschatological references in 1 Timothy and Titus, and, in those which do occur, there does not seem to be the same sense of urgency or imminence surrounding them. Compare, for example, 1 Timothy 4:1ff, which, on the surface, resembles 2 Tim 3:1ff—describing a time of increasing corruption and wickedness in the world. 2 Tim 3:1 begins “in the last days…”, implying that believers currently are living in the “last days”; in 1 Tim 4:1 the wording is different, referring to things that will happen “in (the) following moments”, i.e. later, sometime after the present moment. This gives to the instruction a somewhat different context; it is more generalized, relating to things the minister must deal with (false/deceptive teaching, etc), but without a specific eschatological context.

There are references to the end-time return of Jesus, in 1 Tim 6:14-15 and Titus 2:13; however, one may detect in both these passages a greater emphasis on believers living in the present Age, with a corresponding lack of emphasis on an imminent expectation of the end. Consider the way this is phrased in Tit 2:12-13:

“…(how) we should live in th(is) Age now, (while) (look)ing toward receiving the happy hope and the shining forth upon (earth) of the splendor of our great God and Savior Yeshua (the) Anointed”

Even more pronounced is the apparent lack of imminence in 1 Tim 6:14-15ff, especially in verses 17-19, which could be taken as implying that our life in the current Age will likely continue for some time. Even the specific reference to Jesus’ return seems to be located more generally at some unspecified future time:

“…you are to keep watch (over) th(is) duty placed on (you) to complete…until the shining forth upon (earth) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, which (God) will show in (his) own moments/times (to come)…”

As in Titus 2:12-13, verse 17 has the same emphasis on “th(is) Age now”, i.e. present Age (and how we live in it), rather than on the Age to come. The promise of future reward (in heaven) is preserved (v. 19), but without the eschatological immediacy and urgency we find in similar passages elsewhere in the Pauline letters.

“Gnosis” in the NT: Col 2:2-3 (continued)

Colossians 2:2-3 (continued)

In the previous study, I explored the context and setting of Col 2:2-3 in the letter, examining the structure, language and imagery being employed. Today, I will look more closely at these specific verses.

“…being lifted [i.e. brought/joined] together in love and into all (the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind), into the (full) knowledge about the secret of God—(the) Anointed (One), in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away.”

As I discussed previously, the language used here echoes and repeats that of the exordium (introduction), especially in the first sentence (spanning vv. 9-20), which is sometimes referred to as the “Christ hymn” of Colossians. Let us begin by comparing 2:2-3 with 1:9.

Col 1:9 opens with an expression of Paul’s wish (and prayer) for the Colossians, and similarly in 2:1:

    • “Through this [i.e. for this reason] we…do not cease speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying]…over you” (1:9)
    • “For I wish you (could) have seen [i.e. could know]…” (2:1)

His wish is expressed through the subjunctive, involving the word “fill, fullness”:

    • “that [i%na] you might be filled [plhrwqh=te]…” (1:9)
    • “that [i%na] their [i.e. your] hearts might be called alongside [i.e. helped/comforted]…into…the full [plhro-]…” (2:2)

In 2:2, he uses the word plhrofori/a, which is somewhat difficult to translate. Literally, it indicates something which is carried or brought out fully, often in the sense of something being demonstrated convincingly; it thus connotes the idea of confidence or assurance i.e., that something is true or will be accomplished, etc. This “fullness” Paul wishes for the Colossians is defined and qualified with prepositional phrases and genitive chains using the key words gnw=si$/e)pi/gnwsi$ (“knowledge”), su/nesi$ (‘comprehension’) and sofi/a (“wisdom”).

    • “{filled} (with) the knowledge [e)pi/gnwsi$] of His will in all wisdom [sofi/a] and spiritual comprehension [su/nesi$]” (1:9)
    • “{into…full} understanding [su/nesi$], into knowledge [e)pi/gwsi$] of the secret of God—(the) Anointed (One)” (2:2)
      “in whom are all the treasures of wisdom [sofi/a] and knowledge [gnw=si$] hidden away” (2:3)

The word su/nesi$, which I here translate as “comprehension” and “understanding”, literally means the putting together of things, i.e. in the mind. In 2:2 the use of this noun together with plhrofori/a (cf. above), functions as a kind of hendiadys (two words for a single concept). They form a genitive chain modifying the noun plou=to$ (“rich[ness], riches, wealth”)—plou=to$ th=$ plhrofori/a$ th=$ sune/sew$. My attempt to capture something of the literal meaning (cf. the translation at the top of this note) is:

“(the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind)”

As always, the parentheses indicate glosses which make the translation more readable. From the standpoint of the Greek syntax, a better rendering would be:

“(the) rich(ness) of the full conviction and understanding (given to us)”

In terms of hendiadys, the translation might be:

“(the) rich(ness) of the full understanding (we have)”

I would suggest that each of these translations captures aspects of what the author (Paul) is genuinely saying. Another important point of syntax in 2:2 is the use of parallel prepositional phrases governed by ei)$ (“into/unto”), indicating the goal for believers as they are “lifted/joined together in love”:

    • “into [ei)$] all (the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind)”
    • “into [ei)$] (true/complete) knowledge of the secret of God”

These two phrases are parallel and apposite (placed side-by-side), the second explaining the first—that which is fully brought together in the mind of believers is the knowledge of the secret of God. This begins with the hearing of the Gospel, but continues through the Christian life, through the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not specifically mentioned here in 2:2-3, but it may be inferred from the wording of 1:9 where the comprehension/understanding (su/nesi$) is characterized as pneumatiko/$ (“spiritual, of the Spirit”). In 2:2 (as in 1:9-10) the word translated “knowledge” is e)pi/gnwsi$ rather than the simpler gnw=si$ (which is used in 2:3). The compound form often signifies a more thorough, complete, or intimate knowledge about something (or someone). It can also carry the sense of recognition or acknowledgment. The distinction and range of meaning can be difficult to translate effectively in English without losing the etymological connection.

Of special importance is the expression “secret [musth/rion] of God”. Often in Paul’s letters this secret is identified with the Gospel; here, however, it is more properly identified with Christ himself. The syntax and word order caused some difficulty for scribes copying Colossians, as there are a number of variant readings at this point among the manuscripts, which attempt to clarify the (presumed) meaning. Along with most commentators and textual critics, I assume the reading of Ë46 B as original. The words “God” and “Christ” follow after each other, both in the genitive case (qeou= xristou=). There being no punctuation in the earliest manuscripts, the syntax was somewhat ambiguous; we can approximate this in English translation as “the secret of God of Christ”. The word xristou= (“of [the] Anointed”, “of Christ”) is best understood as being apposite the expression “of the secret of God”, with “Christ” related to “the secret” rather than “God”. In other words, Christ is the secret, hidden away from the ages and generations past, but now revealed through the proclamation of the Gospel (1:26-27). Verse 3 provides an interesting parallel use of the verb a)pokrup/tw (“hide [away] from”)—while Christ is the secret hidden away, at the same time, God has hidden away in him “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”. The parallel expressions in vv. 2 and 3 are clear enough:

    • “all [pa=$] the riches [sing.]…of understanding…knowledge of the secret” (v. 2)
    • “all [pa/nte$] the treasures [plur.] of wisdom and knowledge hidden away” (v. 3)

For another parallel to the syntax of verse 3, we must turn again to the exordium (introduction), to 1:14, where the Son (Christ) is described with the following phrase: “…in whom we hold the loosing from (bondage), the release of sins”. Note the formal similarity:

    • “in whom [e)n w!|] we hold [e&xomen]…” (1:14)
    • “in whom [e)n w!|] are [ei)sin]…” (2:3)

If we press the parallel further, it is possible to tie the verses together conceptually. In other words, the things that are in Christ are those things which we have/hold in him (and vice versa). This would mean that the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” can, and perhaps should, be identified with the saving work of Christ referenced in 1:14, which is again described by two phrases set in tandem:

    • “loosing from (bondage)” (a)polu/trwsi$)
    • “release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins” (a&fesi$ tw=n a(martiw=n)

This association would tend to negate any sort of markedly gnostic interpretation of the Christian message, by connecting knowledge with the sacrificial death of Christ. Though this particular soteriological aspect is not brought out in Colossians until the main portion of the letter (see vv. 8-15), it is central to Paul’s own understanding of the Gospel. One need only consult the discussion and line of argument in 1 Cor 1:18-2:16 to find this expressed most vividly—that it is in the Gospel as the “word of the cross” that God’s wisdom is most perfectly conveyed, destroying the empty and inferior “wisdom” and “knowledge” of the world.

“Gnosis” in the NT: Colossians 2:2-3

Colossians 2:2-3

“…being lifted [i.e. brought/joined] together in love and into all (the) rich(ness) of th(at which) is fully carried (out and) put together (in the mind), into the (full) knowledge about the secret of God—(the) Anointed (One), in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away.”

Col 2:1-3 concludes with a powerful Christological statement that uses both the noun gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis, “knowledge”) and the compound e)pi/gnwsi$ (epígnœsis, “knowledge upon/about”); as such, it is an important reference related to the idea of knowledge in the New Testament. It also contains the words musth/rion (“secret”) and the adjective a)po/krufo$ (from a)pokru/ptw, “hide [away] from”), which connotes the aspect of revelation tied to the verb a)pokalu/ptw (“take the cover [away] from”, “uncover”). All of this is centered in the person of Christ, making it one of the strongest Christological statements regarding knowledge and revelation in the New Testament. For more on these points, cf. Part 3 of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

In order to understand better the context of this reference, it will help to summarize the structure of Colossians, from a rhetorical and epistolary standpoint. After the opening prescript (greeting) in 1:1-2, and the exordium (introduction) of 1:3-23, we have the narratio (narration) in which the author (Paul) presents a personal, autobiographical address to his readers, emphasizing his labor and concern as a minister of the Gospel. It may be divided into two parts—a statement of his work (1:24-29), and its application for the believers of Colosse (2:1-5); the statement of 2:1-3 belongs to this latter portion. The central proposition (propositio) of the letter occurs in 2:6-7, followed by the main probatio (2:8-3:4), utilizing three arguments or illustrations meant to convince and encourage his readers. Then comes the exhortatio (3:5-4:6), with ethical and practical instruction, presented in three parts, and the final conclusion or postscript (4:7-18).

Let us consider the narratio more closely. The first part (1:24-29), describes the work of Paul as minister of the Gospel, written as a single sentence in Greek. Two themes or aspects of the Gospel ministry are brought forward:

    • Paul’s suffering for the sake of the church—”I rejoice in the sufferings over you…over his [i.e. Christ’s] body…” (vv. 24-25); the goal and purpose of this suffering and labor is two-fold:
      (1) to “fill up” (i.e. complete) the affliction which Christ experienced in the flesh (i.e. in his body), and
      (2) to “(ful)fill” the account (lo/go$) of God (i.e. the Gospel) which was given to him as a servant of Christ and of Christ’s “body” (the Church)
    • The Gospel of Christ as a secret (musth/rion) which is now being revealed by ministers such as Paul (vv. 26-29)

Note the important wording in vv. 25-27:

“…to fulfill the account of God, the secret th(at) has been hidden away from the Ages and from the (generation)s coming-to-be, but now is made to shine (forth) [e)fanerw/qh] to His holy (one)s, to whom God wished to make known [gnwri/sai] among the nations what (is) the rich(ness) of the splendor of this secret, which is—(the) Anointed in you, the (very) hope of splendor…”
On the verbs fanero/w and gnwri/zw, and the two different aspects of revelation conveyed by them, cf. Part 3 of “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

There is considerable similarity of vocabulary and phrasing here with 2:2-3, which is understandable, since in the second part of the narratio (2:1-5), Paul’s work as minister of the Gospel is applied to the believers he addresses. Here is how this portion begins:

“For I wish you (could) have seen (what a) big struggle/fight I hold over you, and (over) the (one)s in Laodicea, and as (many) as have not looked (on) my face in the flesh, (so) that their hearts might be called alongside [i.e. helped/comforted], being lifted together in love…” (2:1-2a)

Paul’s labor and suffering (i.e. his struggle) is related specifically to the believers in Colosse, Laodicea, and elsewhere in Asia Minor. Before examining 2:2-3 again a bit more closely, it will be helpful to consider the structure of the preceding exordium (1:3-23), since it establishes the key themes of the letter, and leads into the narration (cf. especially the transitus [transition] in v. 23). After the thanksgiving in vv. 3-8, the remainder of the introduction functions as a statement (and exposition) of the causa, or reason/purpose of the letter (vv. 9-23). It is comprised of two sentences in Greek, the first of which is extremely long and developed, spanning 12 verses (vv. 9-20). The theme of knowledge again is central to the purpose of the letter: “…that you might be filled (with) the (true) knowledge of His will, in all wisdom and spiritual comprehension” (v. 9b). This first sentence emphasizes the person of Christ, as the chain of (relative) pronouns and prepositional phrases makes clear in impressive fashion. This complex syntax is generally lost in translation, but it is important to be aware of how it functions. The knowledge (e)pi/gnwsi$) mentioned in verse 9 is clarified in v. 10 as “the knowledge of God“, that is, of an intimate knowledge and awareness of Him. In verse 12, the character and work of God is applied more closely to believers with the use of the term “Father”, which is the reference point for the syntactical chain that follows in vv. 13ff:

  • “…to the Father…”
    • who [o%$] rescued us out of the authority of darkness and making us stand together (away from there and) into the kingdom of the Son of His love”
      • “in whom [e)n w!|] we hold the loosing from (bondage), the release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins”
      • who [o%$] is the image of the invisible God…”

This chain continues on, emphasizing: (a) the Son as head/first of all creation [vv. 15b-17], (b) the head of the Church [v. 18], and finally (c) embodying the fullness of all [v. 19]. Verse 20 summarizes the saving work of Christ, which is the theme of the second sentence (vv. 21-23). When looking at the specific wording and structure of 2:2-3, there are two verses from the first sentence of the exordium which ought to be examined especially for comparison—v. 9 and 14. This I will do in the next study.

“Secret” in Paul’s Letters: Col 1:26-27; 4:3, etc

In this series of studies on the occurrences of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament, today I will be looking at its use in Colossians and Ephesians. Both of these letters have been considered by many critical commentators as pseudonymous; for the purposes of this study, I essentially treat them both as Pauline. I tend to regard Colossians as an authentic work by Paul (on objective grounds), while allowing for a bit more uncertainty in the case of Ephesians. Since there are many points of similarity in language and structure between the two writings, I deal with them together here.

Colossians 1:26-27

These verses form part of the second main section of the letter, which I delineate as 1:24-2:5, an (auto)biographical narration (by Paul) similar in certain respects to the narratio of classical rhetoric. It follows the opening exordium (1:3-23), marked by thanksgiving and praise for the Colossians, but which also contains a core Christological declaration (vv. 15-20) presented in hymnic (or semi-hymnic) form. Col 1:24-2:5 may be divided into two parts:

    • Paul’s suffering as a minister of the Gospel (1:24-29), and
    • His suffering on behalf of those in Colosse (and Asia Minor) (2:1-5)

Col 1:24-29 is made up of a single sentence in Greek; its structure is marked and governed by a kind of step-parallelism (indicated in bold):

  • “I rejoice in (my) sufferings over you… over the body of (Christ), which is the Gathered (Community) [ekkl¢sia i.e. the Church]
    • of which I have come to be a minister…to (ful)fill the word/account [lo/go$] of God
      • the secret [musth/rion] hidden away from the Ages…but now has shone forth to His holy ones
        • to whom God wished to make known what (is) the (full) wealth of the honor/glory of this secret…which is the Anointed (One) [i.e. Christ] in you…
          • whom we bring as a message…teaching every man…(so) that we might stand every man alongside (God) complete in the Anointed (One)
            • unto which I also labor (hard)…according to His working (power itself) working in me in [i.e. with] power”

The start of each line picks up from the end of the previous line. The entire sentence also forms an inclusio, bracketed by Paul’s (personal) declaration:

    • I rejoice in my sufferings over you…
    • …unto which I also labor hard, struggling

The idea of the “secret” (musth/rion) being “hidden away [a)pokekrumme/non] from the Ages” was expressed, in nearly identical wording, in 1 Cor 2:7 (cf. the prior study), and also is found in Eph 3:9 (cf. below). Two points regarding this “secret” are clear from an examination of vv. 24-29:

    • It is parallel to the “account” (or “word”, lo/go$) of God (v. 26), which, in turn, is generally synonymous with the Gospel message in early Christian thought.
    • Verse 27 defines what this secret is, but in qualified, exalted language (“the [full] wealth of the honor/glory [do/ca] of this secret”): “the Anointed (One) in you”. There are three components of this definition:
      (1) the person of Jesus Christ (implied)
      (2) that he is the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ)
      (3) that he is “in you” (i.e. in believers), usually understood in terms of the Spirit
      The author further glosses this with the phrase “the hope of honor/glory”—that is, the future/ultimate salvation of believers, culminating in the resurrection and eternal life

God has made known—indeed, from the beginning he has wished this to be made known—the secret to the “holy ones”, that is, those chosen by Him to become believers in Christ (cf. below).

Colossians 2:2

Col 2:1-5 runs parallel to 1:24-29, and contains similar wording and phrasing; consider, for example, the opening words of each portion:

    • “Now I take delight [i.e. rejoice] in (my) sufferings over you…in my flesh…” (1:24)
    • “For I wish you (could) have seen (what) great struggle I hold over you…and (also) those who have not seen my face in the flesh” (2:1)

There is also a similar phrase using the word musth/rion (“secret”); note the italicized words in vv. 2-3, for which there are parallels in 1:26-28:

“…(so) that their hearts might be called along [i.e. helped], driven together in love and unto all (the) wealth of the full accomplishment of putting (things) together [i.e. understanding], unto (the full) knowledge about the secret of God—(the) Anointed (One), in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden away…”

Here the Anointed One (Christ) is defined more precisely as the secret itself, but note how even this is qualified with some interesting elliptical phrasing, which I outline as a chiasm:

Clearly Christ is at the center of the secret, but is not exactly identical with it.

Colossians 4:3

In this verse (4:3), Paul uses the expression “the secret of (the) Anointed (One)” (to\ musth/rion tou= Xristou=). It is not entirely clear whether the genitive here should be understood as objective (Christ is the content of the secret), or subjective (Christ is the one holding/delivering the secret). Generally, Paul’s usage, and manner of referring to Christ, suggests the former—i.e. the secret is about Christ, making known the truth about him. As such, it is more or less synonymous with the Gospel message. However, as Paul makes clear in Galatians 1:6-9, 11-12, 16, he received the Gospel (and his commission to preach it), initially through revelation direct from Christ himself. This raises the possibility that Paul may have understood the “secret” as something which Christ himself delivers to believers (on this, cf. Eph 3:3-4 below).

Ephesians 1:9

In many ways, the first half of Ephesians (chaps. 1-3) can be read almost as a commentary on the first two sections of Colossians (1:3-2:5, cf. above), that is, as a greatly expanded introduction. This larger scope is indicated by the fact that Eph 1:3-14 may be regarded as one long sentence in the Greek—an exalted, majestic, theological (and Christological) statement which brings together many aspects of Pauline thought. There are also a number of similarities and parallels in expression with Col 1:24-2:5; this can be glimpsed in the following translation of Eph 1:7b-10a:

“…according to the wealth of His favor, of which He has given over (and) above unto us, in all wisdom and thought(fulness), making known to use the secret of His will, according to His good consideration which he set before(hand) in Him(self), unto the ‘house-management’ of the filling/fullness of the times, to put all thing(s) up (under one) head in the Anointed (One)…”

The expression “secret of His will” is central to 1:3-14, and refers, not so much to Christ himself, but rather to what we might call the entire process of salvation—from its original predetermination by God to the final redemption and completion of all things (in Christ).

Ephesians 3:3-4, 9; 6:19

Chapter 3 contains an (auto)biographical narration (by Paul), similar in position and tone to that in Col 1:24-2:5; and, it too includes several references to the “secret” (musth/rion). In verse 1, Paul identifies himself as “the one in (the) bonds of the Anointed over you the nations”, that is, (1) as a prisoner for the sake of Christ, and (2) as an apostle/minister to the Gentiles (“nations”). Verses 2-3ff describe this ministry in relation to the “secret”; because of the rather awkward syntax of vv. 2b-3 (which are parenthetical), I initially leave that portion out of the translation of vv. 2-5:

“if indeed [i.e. probably/surely] you have heard (of) the ‘house-management’ [oi)konomi/a] of the favor of God th(at) is being given to me unto you: [that], according to an uncovering [i.e. revelation] He made known to me the secret—(parenthesis)—which in other (period)s of coming-to-be [i.e. generations] was not made known to the sons of men, as now it has been uncovered to His holy (one)s set forth [i.e. apostles] and (the) foretellers [i.e. prophets] in (the) Spirit…”

This is a rather elaborate way of saying what Paul does elsewhere:

    • The secret (of God) has been hidden from previous generations, and
    • It is only made known (uncovered) now to (chosen) believers (“holy ones”) in Christ

These “holy ones” are the disciples of Jesus and first generation of believers (which included Paul), described by two terms or expressions: (1) “the (one)s set forth” [a)posto/loi, i.e. ‘apostles’], that is, those commissioned by Jesus to preach the Gospel, and (2) “the foretellers [profh/tai, i.e. ‘prophets’] in the Spirit”, that is, those called to communicate the word and will of God. It is possible to read “in the Spirit” as applying to both ‘groups’—”apostles and prophets in the Spirit“. The secret is made known in stages: first to the apostles, etc (such as Paul), then to others (“given to me [to give] unto you”); as is also clear from the parenthetical statement in vv. 2b-3:

“—even as I wrote before in (a) little (writing) toward (that) which [i.e. so that] you may be able, (by) reading [lit. knowing again], to have in mind my understanding [lit. putting-together] in the secret of the Anointed (One)—”
As this is extremely cumbersome rendered literally, allow me here to paraphrase:
“—even as I wrote before in a few words so that you might be able, by reading it, to have my (own) understanding of the secret of Christ in mind—”

This locates Paul’s understanding of the secret specifically in his letters, which is one of the details which has caused commentators to question the authenticity of Ephesians. Also worth noting is Paul’s reference to his ministry as the “house-management” (oi)konomi/a) of the favor/grace of God; recall that in 1 Cor 4:1, Paul refers to himself, along with his fellow ministers, as “house-managers” (oi)kono/moi) of the secret of God”. The same idea is repeated in verse 9:

“…and to enlighten [for all] what is the ‘house-management’ of the secret hidden away from the Ages in God…”

The phrasing here suggests that the managing/distributing of the secret is something that has occurred even prior to its revelation unto Paul and the apostles; probably we should understand a chain of revelation: (1) hidden away in God, (2) hidden in Christ, (3) made known to the apostles, etc, (4) made known to believers at large. Paul’s role in this process is again stated in Eph 6:19, where he asks believers to pray for him:

“…that (the) account [lo/go$, i.e. ‘word’] may be given to me in (the) opening of my mouth, in outspokenness, to make known the secret of the good message [eu)agge/lion]…”

Here, again, we find the “secret” more or less identified with the Gospel and the “word/account of God”.

Ephesians 5:32

Finally, we must consider the specific use of musth/rion in the instruction given regarding the Christian household. Recall the use of oi)kono/mo$/oi)konomi/a (“house-manager/house-management”) as a metaphor for making known the secret of God. Now, in the midst of instruction about how one should manage one’s house (5:21-33)—principally in the context of the marriage bond—Paul (or the author) again draws an important illustration: the relationship between Christ and believers (the Church) is similar to that between a husband and his wife. Just as Christ loves the Church and gave his life for it, so a husband should follow this example toward his wife. This love and sacrifice effectively purifies and makes perfect the marriage tie, which symbolizes the union/unity between the two (v. 31). The statement follows in verse 32: “this is a great secret, and I say/relate it unto the Anointed (One) and unto the Gathered (Community) [i.e. the Church]”—it is an illustration which applies to Christ and the Church. In many ways, this is similar to Jesus’ own disclosure of the “secret(s) of the Kingdom” to his disciples through the use of parables (cf. Mark 4:11 par and my prior discussion on this passage).

July 20: Galatians 4:10-11

Today I will be concluding the discussion from the previous day’s note (on Gal 4:8-9), and continuing on to discuss verses 10-11. Much attention was devoted to the important (and difficult) expression “the elements [stoicheia] of the world” (in v. 3, 9), drawing upon the similar usage in Colossians 2:8, 20. Being “under the stoicheia of the world” (Gal 4:3), in Paul’s thought, is clearly parallel (and partly synonymous) with being “under the Law”—the former, it would seem, including the latter. If one were to widen the scope of meaning of Paul’s expression, it might proceed as follows, including:

    • The Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah)
    • A basic sense of religious/moral law, such as shared by (all) cultures and societies
    • Human beliefs, ordinances, teachings, etc (including various “superstitions”), which are regarded as authoritative and/or binding according to custom and tradition

We might summarize Paul’s expression in modern idiom, by saying that he refers to “the way of things” or “the way of the world”—which is in marked contrast to the Gospel and the way of (faith in) Christ. This latter point is indicated especially by the way he characterizes the stoicheia in v. 9 as a)sqenh/$ (“without strength”) and ptwxo/$ (“poor”), both words indicating weakness and inability. Again, we are not accustomed to thinking of the Old Testament Law this way, and, as I have previously noted, many commentators are reluctant to take Paul’s statements regarding the Law in Galatians at face value or accept their full force; and yet, already in the early recorded preaching of Acts 13:38-39 (if we accept it as authentically Pauline), we find this emphasis on the Law being powerless. What he says (in Acts and Galatians) regarding salvation/justification is basically affirmed (from an ethical/moral standpoint) in Colossians 2:22-23.

Let us now look at the end of verse 9, where the whole issue regarding slavery vs. sonship in vv. 1-11 is brought to a pointed question, which begins—

“how (is it that) you turn [back] again upon [i.e. to] the weak and poor elements [stoicheia]…?”

and then concludes, dramatically:

“…to which again, as above [i.e. as before], you wish to be slaves?”

 The relationship between these two clauses may be outlined as follows:

    • You turn back again
      • to the stoicheia
      • to which
    • You wish to be slaves

Verse 10—Here Paul gives the only example (in Galatians) of what he means by turning back to be “under the stoicheia“:

“You watch along (the) days and months and seasons and years”

The verb parathre/w can literally mean “(stand) watch/guard alongside (someone)”, or, more generally, to “watch [i.e. look] carefully (at something)”, i.e. “observe carefully, inspect, examine” (cf. Luke 17:20). Here it is used in the technical sense of religious-cultic observance. There are a couple of points worth noting:

    • Paul’s statement itself takes the form of a stoichos, that is, an ordered list or series—days, months, seasons, years.
    • It summarizes an entire range of socio-religious practice, conforming to patterns of time, especially, e.g., the seasons (cycles) related to fertility (agriculture, childbirth, etc). This makes up a significant portion of the Torah commands and regulations as well—Sabbath, New Moon, New Year, the Sabbatical/Jubilee year, the festal days (such as Passover, originally tied to the harvest), the day of Atonement, etc. It is interesting that Paul makes virtually no mention in his letters of the Jewish holy days and seasons, not even the Sabbath (or the Christian corollary, the “Lord’s Day”); cf. Colossians 2:16.

To this may be supplemented information from Colossians 2, where Paul associates the “stoicheia of the world” (vv. 8, 20) with the following:

    • “human tradition”, lit. “(things) given/passed along by men” (v. 8)
    • circumcision (vv. 11-12)
    • written ordinances/resolutions (do/gmata) (v. 14, cf. also v. 20)
    • chief/principal and authoritative things/entities (“principalities and powers”) (v. 15)
    • dietary regulations (“food and drink”) (v. 16)
    • feast days, new moon, and Sabbath days (v. 16)
    • (religious) observance/worship of ‘Angels’ (v. 18)
    • basic prohibitions in the ritual and/or moral sphere (“do not touch/taste/handle”) (v. 21)
    • ordinances/commands (charges laid on a person to keep) (v. 22)
    • “teachings of men” (v. 23, par. to the expression in v. 8)

Clearly, the context is Jewish, and thus is largely parallel to that in Galatians, with the possible exception of the mention of deities/powers/angels in vv. 15, 18. In Gal 4:9, the stoicheia (of the world) are described as “without strength, weak” (a)sqenh/$) and “poor” (ptwxo/$); in Colossians 2, this is expressed in similar, but slightly different terms, as:

    • empty [keno/$] delusion/deceit” (v. 8)
    • “a shadow of the (thing)s about (to come)” (v. 17)
    • causing the mind and flesh to be rashly/carelessly inflated (v. 18)
    • lead to ruin/decay [fqora/] in their use/observance (v. 22)
    • lacking the ultimate honor/dignity/value [timh/] for true religion (v. 23)

Throughout the passage, these things are all contrasted with Christ (“according to the stoicheia of the world and not according to Christ”, v. 8ff); note also:

    • Christ is the head of all “principality and power” (v. 10), having removed their power and triumphed over them (v. 15); Christ as head is also contrasted with the mind/flesh that is inflated by religious observance (v. 18-19)
    • True (spiritual) circumcision (“without hands”) is of/in Christ (vv. 11-13)
    • His death wipes out the written ordinances against us (v. 14, cf. Gal 2:19-20)
    • The reality of these things is in the “body of Christ” (v. 17)

The statement with the closest connection to the argument in Galatians is that of v. 20:

“If you have died off with (the) Anointed {Christ} from the elements [stoixei=a] of the world, (for) what [i.e. why] (then), as (if) living in the world, do you subject yourself to ordinances [dogmati/zesqe]?”

This is essentially the same question Paul asks in Gal 4:9. Since the modern (religious) mind is, in many respects, so different from the ancient Jewish (and Greco-Roman) viewpoint with which Paul is dealing, it may be helpful, in conclusion, to summarize the components connoted (and denoted) by his expression “the elements [stoicheia] of the world”:

    • First, the habitual/customary religious response of human beings to the natural/physical world (the “elements”, literally); this, in a primary sense, is the “shadow”, that which decays and “passes away” (cf. 1 Cor 7:31).
    • Second, the ‘divine’ powers (deities) which, according to the ancient/traditional religious view, inhabited, governed and controlled the various phenomena of the natural world. It is difficult to gauge precisely Paul’s belief in such matters based on what is expressed in his letters; however, he seems to have believed in the existence of “powers” (presumably created heavenly/angelic beings), which, temporarily, had governing authority/control over the world. He likely also shared the early Christian view that the pagan/polytheistic deities were actually a reflection of evil spirits/demons (1 Cor 10:20).
    • Third, authoritative religious and ethical law—commands, regulations, precepts, observances, et al—established by tradition and custom.
    • Fourth, the specific commands, etc. of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah).

Since the main issue of Galatians is the question of Gentiles observing the Torah, it is really only this last aspect which is dealt with there.

Verse 11—In the concluding verse to this section, Paul turns to an expression of self-doubt (dubitatio) regarding the Galatians’ current course of action (i.e. the inclination to observe the Torah regulations):

“I fear for you, how (might) not [i.e. lest] I have uselessly wearied (myself with work) unto you”

In other words, Paul seems to be expressing fear that his missionary work with the Galatians might have been useless or in vain. It is a clever rhetorical shift: his fear is for the Galatians, yet he moves the focus to himself—this technique allows him to transition to the next argument (4:12-20), which is an appeal based on his own person and example.