Epistles: Relationships in and out of the Church (Colossians 4:1-18)

Good words for everyone

In chapter 4, Paul begins to address everyone: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should” (4:2-4). Prayer should be a consistent part of our lives, and we should be watchful, or alert.1

Paul does not ask that his prison cell be opened, but that the door might open for the gospel, and that the message might be clear, so people know what they are being asked to accept. Paul has years of experience in preaching the gospel, but he still asks for God’s help. He may also be hoping that the Colossians apply these ideas to themselves— that opportunities might arise for them to relay the message, and that they do it clearly.

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity” (4:5). One element of wisdom is knowing that our conduct with others may affect their attitude to the gospel. If we are selfish, opinionated and judgmental, our neighbors may find our message a bit hard to believe.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (4:6). If our words are gracious, they will make the gospel more attractive, more likely to be accepted.2

Exchange of greetings

Ancient Greek letters often closed with an exchange of greetings, and Paul follows this custom, though he mentions many more friends than most letter-writers did: “Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord” (4:7). Tychicus is probably the one who carried the letter to Colosse.

“I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here” (4:8-9). Paul says three times that these messengers will bring news of Paul’s circumstances—this hints at something important. Perhaps they will give details that Paul did not want to put in writing lest they be intercepted or censored.

“My fellow prisoner Aristarchus3 sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas” (4:10). Paul once objected to Mark (Acts 15:37-38), but he is on good terms with him now: “(You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)

“Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me” (4:11).

Paul saves his longest comments for Epaphras, the person who started the church in Colosse (1:7): “Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis” (4:12-13).

Epaphras had a special fondness for these people, and Paul could hear his concerns and felt that it would be helpful to tell the Colossians what Epaphras wanted for them: steadfastness, maturity, and confidence.

“Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings” (4:14). Luke is the author of a Gospel and the book of Acts. Paul says nothing about Demas here; we learn from 2 Tim. 4:10 that he eventually deserted Paul.

Paul then greets people in and near Colosse: “Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house” (4:15). Nympha’s church may have been nearby, in Hierapolis.

Paul tells them to exchange letters: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (4:16).4

“Tell Archippus: ‘See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord’” (4:17). Archippus was part of the church that met in the home of Philemon (Phm. 2). We do not know what “work” he was doing, but Paul encouraged him and affirmed its importance.

Letters were normally penned by scribes who had experience in writing on papyrus, but the real authors often signed the letter themselves. So Paul takes the pen and writes, “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you” (4:18). Grace is central to the Christian life, and Paul ends most of his letters on a note of grace.

Things to think about

  • How do some parents embitter their children? (3:21)
  • What options did first-century slaves have when masters commanded them to do something immoral? (3:22)
  • How might trade unions and corporations make it difficult to apply verse 22 in the modern world?
  • How can good behavior help me answer people’s questions? (4:6)
  • Am I wrestling in prayer for someone? (4:12)


[1] “Three elements of prayer are featured in this section: the necessity of alertness, its characterization by thanksgiving, and its participation in the mission of the proclamation of the gospel” (Lincoln, 663). Thanksgiving “functions as a test of whether a person has truly understood that the gospel is one of grace” (ibid.). Prayer “will focus on both the missionaries and their message” (ibid.).

[2] Some interpreters have suggested that “seasoned with salt” means that we should leave people thirsty for more. This may be a good evangelistic strategy, but Paul seems to be giving advice for how to answer people, not to make them ask more questions. When we use salt in foods, our goal is to improve flavor, not to make people drink more.

[3] When Paul wrote the letter to Philemon, he called Epaphras a fellow prisoner, but he did not say that for Aristarchus (Phm. 23); it seems that Epaphras and Aristarchus had traded places by the time he wrote Colossians.

[4] If the letter was from the Laodiceans, we do not know the people it was written to, and it would be odd for Paul to require them to read it. For the possibility that this might be Ephesians, see note 2. Others have suggested that it is what we now know as Hebrews, or that it is Philemon.

Author: Michael Morrison, 2007


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