The letter to the Colossians is a polemical writing addressed to Christians at Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis in central Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), who are following what Paul calls ‘philosophy and empty deceit’ (2:8). But Paul quickly shifts his focus from his audience to the grace of God and the gospel that is the source of any commendation he can offer.
The Gemma Augustea proclaims another gospel spreading throughout the world. Indeed Paul’s word ‘gospel (euangellion)’ is an imperial term that was used to describe the ‘good news’ of the coming of Augustus Caesar and the peace he brought to his empire. This luxury object offers a snapshot of the ‘fruits’ of Augustus’s reign. It is divided into two registers. Above, Augustus, in the guise of the top Roman god, Jupiter, is seated alongside his wife Livia represented as the goddess Roma. Below are the fruits of this rule: Roman auxiliaries with helmets representing different corners of the Empire pull up a Roman trophy displaying despoiled enemy arms.
Two gospels: one of Jesus and the other of Augustus, both spreading through the world; there could not be a sharper contrast between them. One is centred in conquest and violence, the other is rooted in the grace and peace from God our Father (1:2), a grace and peace that Paul will go on to describe as won and proclaimed in the one vanquished and brutalized by Rome, Jesus Christ (v.20). In the Gemma Augustea there is a transfer—riffing verse 13—‘into the kingdom of his [Jupiter’s] beloved son [Augustus]’ as attested by the brutal absorption into the empire through military victory. In Colossians the transfer is through ‘redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (v.14) through Jesus’s paradoxical victorious defeat on the cross (Colossians 2:15).
For Paul’s listeners there could not have been a more striking contrast in ‘gospels’ and as the letter proceeds from affirmation to censure, they will need to choose what version of good news they will cling to and follow: the one that exercises dominion by way of slavery or the one rooted in the grace and peace that bears the fruit of ‘love in the Spirit’ (v.8).
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
2 To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colosʹsae:
3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love which you have for all the saints, 5because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel 6which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—so among yourselves, from the day you heard and understood the grace of God in truth, 7as you learned it from Epʹaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf 8and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
9 And so, from the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. 11May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; 16for 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 for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. 19For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.