In Philippi, a city north of the Aegean Sea named after Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great (360 B.c.), Paul founded the first Christian church in Europe around the year 51, during his second apostolic journey. He lived in Philippi for some years and had special affection for the Philippians, which they reciprocated.
He suffered imprisonment and the lash on their account, as Luke records in Acts 16:40, and the Philippians for their part sent Epaphroditus to Rome to look after Paul when he was imprisoned there for the Lord. The apostle, typically, was very appreciative of this affection. However, Epaphroditus, who was a great help at first, soon became seriously ill, and once he was on the way to recovery Paul decided to send him back home.
When he left, Epaphroditus carried with him a letter from Paul to the Philippians, a letter written during his imprisonment in 61-63. This letter is not didactic or apologetic in purpose: Paul simply expresses his gratitude to the Father of all consolation and to the Philippians for the kindness and attention they showed him and for never being a source of worry to him but rather of consolation.
The letter, which overflows with joy, is an intimate conversation of a father and his children. Full of tenderness, it encourages and exhorts the Philippians to be ever better athletes of Christ until they reach their final goal-holiness.
Paul uses a simile taken from the games, which enjoyed great popularity during this period. He compares the virtues a Christian has to live, with athletic competitions: just as an athlete does not look behind but has his eyes always on the goal, so a Christian should forget himself, his past life, and trust in God’s grace, but, like a good athlete, he should never feel satisfied until he has reached his goal.
In the course of this very familial letter, Paul writes one of the most profound passages on Christology, when he proposes Christ as the model of humility and self-denial: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God as a thing to be g.asped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
According to the general opinion of the Fathers, the expression “the form of God” means that Jesus is by nature divine; he is true God, the living image of the Father (Col. 1:15, Heb. 1:3), co-substantial and co-eternal with him. Despite this he, as it were, emptied himself and took on human nature, becoming like us in all things but sin.
From the relative freedom he enjoyed during his Roman imprisonment, Paul wrote this letter to the Colossians some time in 61-63. Colossae was a city in Phrygia, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Ephesus, very close to Laodicea. Although this church, composed of Christians mostly of Gentile background, was not founded by Paul himself-it was founded by a disciple of his, Epaphras (1:7)-Paul was well informed about how it was faring.
In fact, a visit by Epaphras to Rome was what occasioned the letter, because he reported to the apostle about erroneous doctrines which had recently made their way into the church at Colossae, threatening both faith and morals. False teachers were introducing a series of outdated Mosaic practices, such as observance of the law of the sabbath, identification of certain foods as unclean, and an exaggerated emphasis on the role of angels as intermediaries between God and men, which threatened to undermine the true doctrine of Christ as the only mediator.
Christians hold that Christ’s mediation, his redemption, is something infinite: No one’s personal suffering can add anything to it. Any Christian, since he is a member of Christ’s mystical body, can unite himself to our Lord’s sufferings which are on-going in the Church: “You suffer as needs be to contribute through your suffering to the sufferings of Christ, who has suffered as our head and who suffers in his members, that is, in yourselves” (Augustine).
Paul uses the occasion to instruct the Colossians and to restate for them the truth about the absolute supremacy of Jesus Christ, as beginning and end of all creation. He is the true creator, conserver and redeemer, for he is the Son of God. That is to say, he is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities-all things were created through him and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the Church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he ought to be pre-eminent” (Col1:15-18).
This text speaks of the activity of the Son prior to his appearance on earth. Paul particularly stresses the pre-existence of the Word, thanks to which all things were created by him; and this preexistence is based on the fact that he is God, co-eternal with the Father. The “beloved Son” of Colossians 1:13 is now described as “the first-born of all creation,” an expression which, given the context, must be taken in a comparative sense: that is, he is before all creation or, which is the same thing, he exists from all eternity.
It is very far from Paul’s thinking, therefore, to present the Son of God as the first among creatures-an error into which Arius fell through misinterpreting this text. Paul, on the contrary, describes Jesus Christ as the Creator in the widest and fullest sense of that word, which is proper to God alone. Thus, he calls him “the image of the invisible God”, to underline his complete identity of nature with God, concluding that “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9); divinity and humanity are united in Jesus Christ in his own person, which is divine, in the same kind of way as the soul is the form of the body and with the body constitutes one single principle of operation. Through his sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus has become the universal mediator reconciling all men to God. Thereby he becomes the supreme head of the Church, which is rightly called the Body of Christ. From effective union with the head the Christian receives the new life which should imbue all his actions; this requires us, since we have a share in the life of the risen Christ, to die to the old man, that is, to reject worldly living, which is something for people who do not know Christ. Therefore, the Colossians should not focus on matters of food or on things merely external to man, but on the very heart of man’s personality: thereby they will learn the way to upright living. Hence the program which God inspires Paul to outline, “Now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another. . . forgiving each other” (Col. 3:8-13)
The apostle describes the way they should practice charity in their dealings with others: their conversation-the test of true fraternity -should be seasoned with salt, that is, with prudence and refinement, which will advise them what to say to each person at any particular time (cf. Col. 4:6).
Philemon was a wealthy Colossian; a personal friend of Paul, who converted him to the faith. He had a slave called Onesimus, who stole from him and then ran away to escape punishment. Later he in turn met Paul and became a Christian.
After Onesimus had been in Rome a short time, Paul asked him to go back to Colossae, to his master, bringing with him a letter from the Apostle. This short letter is a fine example of the art of letter writing, full of sensitivity and refined charity. Paul makes no demands in it; he simply makes a humble appeal to Philemon.
The letter, which has been described as the magna carta of Christian freedom, touches on a subject of special importance in ancient times -that of slavery.
Paul does not directly denounce slavery-then the basic structure of labor relations, but he does establish the groundwork for its abolition. By stressing the dignity of the human person, he shows that slaves’ real master is Christ, even if they render service to Christ through obedience to their masters; as he puts it elsewhere, they should act not as “men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Eph. 6:6). This is a direct consequence of the freedom which Christ won for us, which makes us his sons and therefore brothers of those who share our faith-on a level of equality with other Christians, without any distinction of race or color or class or condition. Centuries later, when this teaching imbued the civil law, slavery would become a thing of the past.