The apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians begins in a routine and standard manner. The opening greeting and salutation mirrors what we find in his other letters, especially Philippians and Ephesians. Nevertheless, even this brief, “stock” greeting is worth consideration. It is loaded with meaning, actually. These words tell us about a lot about Paul, and a lot about his wishes for the church.
These verses are our first glimpse, in this letter, of the author and his message.
Παῦλος ἀπόστολος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ καὶ Τιμόθεος ὁ ἀδελφὸς
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother…” (NRSV)
Παῦλος ἀπόστολος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ (“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God….”). Clearly, this is not a man with an identity crisis. He knows who he is and what he is about. This seems to dovetail for me with the picture of Paul drawn for us in the book of Acts. Paul is an assertive person. In fact, in my opinion, the book of Acts portrays him as a downright overbearing person. He knows who he is. He knows what he has been called to do. His identity is found in his service to God.
Would he have considered himself a successful person, I wonder? What would have been the measure of such “success”? He wasn’t building a great “kingdom” or “ministry” for himself anyway, so it would have been hard to measure. 2 Corinthians 4 gives us some reason to believe that Paul experienced a lot of discouragement in his ministry. He was tempted to “lose heart.” It was this sense of calling that kept him going.
ἀπόστολος (apostle). I suppose the closest we can get to the meaning of this is “missionary.” In both cases the word suggests someone who is “sent out” to spread the message of Christ. Another word that comes close is “messenger.” The word “ambassador” is not bad either (see Ephesians 6:20 & 2 Corinthians 5:20). But, there was an historical uniqueness about the role of the apostles that cannot be overlooked. The apostles were historically distinct. They were the guardians of the original Jesus tradition. They were the leading figures in the establishment of the Christian faith in the ancient world. They were the witnesses to the story of Jesus and His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). They laid the original foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20).
διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ (“by the will of God”). It seems to me that there are two ways of reading this. We could hear it proclaimed with authority or with humility. It either means: “I have God’s stamp of approval. Listen to me.” Or, it is the recognition of a higher authority: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:10 NRSV). Paul’s role as apostle is only “by the will of God.” There is a higher authority than Paul — to whom they must pay attention.
διὰ could also be translated “through”: i.e., God’s will makes the privilege of apostleship possible. Clearly, Paul felt he was called by God. His “ordination” (so to speak) was from God, though recognized also by the other apostles. (See: Galatians 1:15-24. Compare the “call” of Amos in Amos 7:14-15.)
καὶ Τιμόθεος ὁ ἀδελφὸς (“and Timothy [our] brother”). I’ve always wondered if this means that Timothy is the co-author. I really think it does. And, certainly, it points to Timothy as a companion in Paul’s Roman imprisonment. Paul is not alone, and the message of this letter is not to be received as being from him alone. Adam Clarke says he doesn’t think Timothy had a part in the writing. I don’t agree. I think we ought to take this phrase more seriously. The implicit claim here is that the message comes from Timothy as well as Paul. At the very least, there is the notion that Timothy would agree with the contents of the letter.
The apostle Paul knew who he was, by the grace of God, and he knew what he was about.