ESSAY
Children in the Lord: Colossians 3:20
POSTED
September 27, 2022

I should begin by declaring my bias: I believe that the book of Colossians was written by the apostle Paul around AD 60, during the Roman imprisonment recorded in Acts 28. Douglas Moo offers a detailed defense of Pauline authorship, including dating the book in AD 60 during Paul’s Roman imprisonment — near the end of Paul’s life and ministry, a date which explains what many see as an advance on Paul’s theology. Moo’s thorough discussion offers persuasive answers to those who question Paul’s authorship, especially on the most important issue, the advanced Christology of Colossians. Readers interested in an exhaustive study of introductory matters regarding the book of Colossians should consult Moo.[i]

Assuming my bias, I see a context for the book of Colossians that seems to be entirely neglected. I have not found a commentary on Colossians or a work on Paul’s theology that mentions it — though, of course, my reading, though sufficiently exhausting, is far from exhaustive. What I am referring to is the fact that Paul, under house arrest, received Epaphras’ message about the Colossian church among friends, including Mark and Luke, the authors of the Gospels that go by their names — again, my bias is clear, but also traditional, defensible, and important.

The fact that Paul mentions those with him in the closing of the epistle is fraught with significance for the whole epistle. These other men heard Epaphras’ report together with Paul. Paul only mentions Timothy in the greeting — implying that he and Timothy have consulted on the material in the letter. The list of men at the end of Colossians, and an almost identical list at the end of Philemon, implies that they are also at least cognizant of the contents and I think more. Paul naturally talked with them about what he was writing and they interacted with him.

Consider: can we imagine Paul eating and talking with friends who, with him, hear Epaphras’ report, and Paul not discussing with them the problems of the church or his response? Onesimus, the runaway slave is among them. Presumably they all would have known that Epaphras was laboring fervently in prayer for the Colossians (4:12). If Tychicus is being sent to comfort the Colossians and make known “all the news about” Paul, should we not also assume that the rest of Paul’s companions share in fellowship with “all the news” about the Colossians, that they share in the urgent and prayerful concern of Epaphras, and that they share in knowledge of what Paul wrote to the Colossian church, not to mention Philemon? Any other assumption would contradict all we know about the passionate apostle who called himself “brother,” “co-laborer,” and “fellow prisoner.”

The so-called “household code in Col. 3.18-4.1”[ii] is often wrongly understood as an almost independent section and the reasons for its “insertion” here invite wide-ranging speculation on the whole unit.[iii] This is entirely wrong. The code does not begin with Colossians 3:18. Rather, we should see Colossians 3:17 as a hinge verse summarizing what has gone before, but also introducing what follows.[iv] Having declared that in Christ, there is no more Jew or Gentile, slave or free (3:10-11), Paul adds concrete instruction (3:18-4:1) on what it means to do all things in word or deed in the name of the Lord (3:17). Considering the false humility and counterfeit spirituality of the false teachers (2:18-23), concrete instruction may have been essential. It was at least appropriate.

No doubt, hearing Epaphras’ report, Paul’s friends would have agreed in the importance of such instruction, not only for the Colossian church, but also for the church in Ephesus, to whom Paul wrote at the same time, and the churches in Laodicea and Hierapolis to whom also the book of Colossians — and presumably Ephesians — is sent (Colossians 4:13, 16). Given the parallel in Ephesians and the fact that these epistles would have been read in many of the local congregations in Asia, we should assume, I think, a widespread need for such teaching, perhaps a circumstance known through Epaphras and also Onesimus.

Imagine now, Paul, Mark, and Luke, together with Timothy and the others, discussing the instructions in the “household code.” For husbands and wives, Christ and the Church provide the model — an absolutely revolutionary model, for who would imagine the cross — the Empire’s scandalous method for executing criminals and slaves — as the standard for ‘love”?  Paul expounded this more fully in Ephesians 5:21-6:9.

I am interested now, however, in the instruction to children. Two things are especially important.

First, Paul addresses them directly, just as he does wives and husbands, fathers, slaves and masters. Now we know that Paul is not addressing all wives, husbands, fathers and slaves in the whole Roman Empire or even in the whole city of Colossae. He is only addressing the “saints and faithful brethren in Christ(1:2). Paul never addresses Caesar or other political officials in his letters. All of them are written exclusively to baptized brethren in Christ. In that case, direct address to the children not only implies, but presupposes they are “in Christ” through baptism just as the others to whom Paul directs his exhortations.

Second, in addressing the children in Colossians 3:20, Paul uses the expression “ἐν κυρίῳ”/“in the Lord,” though many translations obscure this by rendering it “to the Lord” — to fit better with the idea of “well pleasing” — as the NKJV: “well pleasing to the Lord” (cf. KJV, NASB, Douay-Reims, etc.) However, the NRSV translates more properly: “your acceptable duty in the Lord,” preserving “ἐν κυρίῳ.”

Now “ἐν κυρίῳ”/“in the Lord,” might sound like it would be a common New Testament expression, but, though it appears 48 times in 46 verses,[v] all but one of the verses (Revelation 14:13) are in Paul’s epistles. In other words, “ἐν κυρίῳ” is a distinctly Pauline expression. Its usage is broad enough, but the underlying presupposition is baptismal union with Christ: “For you were once darkness, but nowyou are light in the Lord (“ἐν κυρίῳ”). Walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8).

The children of unspecified age that Paul addresses in Colossians 3:20 are “ἐν κυρίῳ,” like the rest of the Colossian church, they are “saints and faithful brethren.” From the time of the early Jewish Church in Jerusalem founded on the day of Pentecost, Christians who saw baptism as incorporation into Christ, and therefore the Abrahamic covenant, would have most naturally assumed that the sign of the New Covenant belonged to their infants. In its larger context, Colossians 3:20 provides evidence that they did. 

I also imagine that Paul, Mark, and Luke, conversing together about Paul’s instruction to children, might have recollected the only two events in the Gospels that provoked Jesus to specifically address the matter of children and the kingdom. Parallels exist in all three synoptic Gospels (cf. Matthew 18:1-5; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48: and Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17), indicating perhaps that it was especially important and ensuring that Jesus’ teaching about children would have been well-known, as indeed from church history we know that it was.

“Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:14)


Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.


[i] Moo shows that there is something of a consensus among scholars today that older arguments about the vocabulary and style of Colossians do nothing to demonstrate is could not have been written by the apostle Paul. The main argument now concerns the theology. Colossians’ theology is too developed to have been written by Paul, especially its Christology. However, even if one grant a modicum of plausibility to this argument — which I personally do not — the fact that Colossians was written in AD 60 explains in part the apparently more developed Christology of the letter: It would simply mean that Paul continued to grow through his meditation and teaching on the Scriptures as well as fellowship with others. 

[ii] Angela Standhartinger, “The Origin and Intention of the Household Code in the Letter to the Colossians,” The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 79 (2000), p. 117.

[iii] Ibid., pp. 117-130.

[iv] John Paul Heil sees 3:17-4:1 as an identifiable unit within the “macrochiastic structure” of the book of Colossians. Colossians: Encouragement to Walk in All Wisdom as Holy Ones in Christ (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), p. 163, etc.

[v] Romans 14:14; 16:2, 8, 11-13, 22; 1 Corinthians 1:31; 4:17; 7:22, 39; 9:1-2; 11:11; 15:58; 16:19; 2 Corinthians 2:12; 10:17; Galatians 5:10; Ephesians 2:21; 4:1, 17; 5:8; 6:1, 10, 21; Philemon 1:14; 2:19, 24, 29; 3:1; 4:1-2, 4, 10; Colossians 3:18, 20; 4:7, 17; 1 Thessalonians 3:8; 4:1; 5:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:4; Philemon 1:16, 20; Revelation 14:13.

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