What we have said in the Introduction to the First Letter to Timothy is equally suitable for this second letter. It is supposed to have been written by Paul from his prison in Rome, shortly before his death. There is no reason for doubting the authenticity of a few details that Paul gives on his situation while awaiting his sentence. As for the rest, both Paul and Timothy are only pseudonyms: the counsels and the warnings are actually those the unknown author wanted to give the ministers of the Church, some decades after the death of the apostle.
• 1.3 Fan into a flame the gift you received. See 1 Tim 4:14. Paul tries to give his own energy to Timothy and he reminds him of God’s love and promises.
The sound doctrine… the precious deposit… which you have heard from me (13-14): see 1 Tim 1:3. The doctrine of the faith cannot be altered, but neither can it be put in storage. It must be lived, which brings into play our creativity as well as that of the Holy Spirit that lets it be rediscovered each day.
He saved us and called us: see Eph 2:8-10.
He is capable of taking care of all I have entrusted to him (v. 12). These words invite us to remember the exact meaning of the word “faith.” In Hebrew, for the Old Testament, the word “faith” had the same root as “to be firm,” or “to lean on something.” In Greek, the word that has become “faith” signifies both the trust that could be had in a debtor, and the guarantee given to the creditor. So Paul considers all his apostolic life as the deposit he has placed in God’s hands. Like Paul a person of faith is not deceived by the mirages of a happy life but prefers to use his life in an often thankless labor and persevere as if he already saw what couldn’t yet be seen (Heb 11:27).
• 2.1 Entrust to reliable people (v. 2). We have seen in Paul’s first missions that he took care to establish elders in each community (Acts 14:23; see also Titus 1:6). They must be able to preserve the faith in full. We often give more importance to immediate effectiveness of our actions rather than to doctrinal exactitude. In the long run, there is never an error that is not paid for. Saint Irenaeus affirms that the primary mission of the Church is to maintain in the world a true knowledge of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. See however the com. on Galatians 2:5.
Then Paul invites Timothy to surrender completely, with the assurance that his efforts will be rewarded.
Be strong with the grace you have in Christ Jesus, Christ’s witness must be courageous and strong, as the messenger of the victorious Christ. His own conviction will convince others. He must avoid the many ways of wasting time and getting off track in his mission: idle conversations devoid of value. Things that do not promote a better service of God (1 Tim 1:4): false religious problems unrelated to real life.
No soldier gets involved (v. 4). It happened at times that Paul earned his living while preaching (2 Cor 11:9; 2 Thes 3:7), but now here the letter speaks for those who waste their time in working for a living when the community has the duty of seeing to their needs. For a minister of the Church, work can be a way of placing oneself in the world and in the midst of people; but it could also be a way of escaping the difficulties and humiliations of every apostolic task.
• 14. Return to the experiences of the apostolic worker. In time the converted are tested: some make progress and others are lost. The apostle should not be astonished: no fall, no scandal can shake the solid foundations laid by God (v. 19): the Church will never be defeated.
They hold that the resurrection has already taken place (v. 18). Faith in the resurrection was accepted with as much difficulty in those times as it is today, and many wanted to keep the word without being embarrassed by a God who shatters our way of thinking. Perhaps those named here held that a spiritual resurrection took place at baptism and there was nothing more to hope for after death. On this subject, see in the Gospel of John the precision given in 5:28 immediately following 5:25.
• 3.1 In the last days (v. 1): see 1 Tim 4:1. Even the presence of evil in the Church should not surprise us.
The paragraph 14-17 gives us in a few words a full message on biblical meditation: the Scriptures will give you wisdom (v. 15). Biblical meditation is the best means of making faith mature (15-17). When these lines were written Scripture was essentially the Old Testament, but already the Church possessed and considered as Scripture several Gospels and some of Paul’s letters.
Just before the mention of Scripture we read: Continue with what you have learned—knowing from whom you received it. “Tradition” means precisely what we receive from our elders. The reading of the Bible is inseparable from the “Tradition of the Apostles,” which is the “Tradition of the Church,” and it is a way of understanding the Bible, just as Jesus immediately after his resurrection opened to his apostles a new way of reading salvation history. This tradition is the second support of faith.
All Scripture is inspired by God (v. 16) and there we look for a message from God to his people rather than an occasion for personal speculation. The same Spirit that directs the Church has equally inspired the biblical authors.
For many years, we spoke of the ”inspiration” of the Bible, not so much to encourage the reading of it in the family or community, but to affirm the fact of it being without error. It was also because some people saw contradictions between Bible and science. These problems have partly disappeared. Each book is as the human authors wrote it, reflecting their culture and their limitations (before the coming of Christ, faith had not attained full maturity; before rational science, people could not express themselves according to scientific views). The entire book is also from God and every text is part of a definitive message. It is there we find the truth of God, and not in the exactitude of details and literary form, which we necessarily must adapt to our modern language.
Above all we must remember that the Word of God is the normal nourishment of faith. It is not only useful for teaching: Bible reading has the value of a sacrament for the faithful. No preaching, no catechism even though “biblical” can replace the frequent meditative reading of the word of God for the development of faith.
• 4.1 Preach the Word (v. 2): this is Paul’s last advice. It must be the first concern of the Church and of any church leader.
Paul knows that he will not be freed and that he will be condemned to death. He embraces his own sacrifice just as Jesus did.
We find the comparison of the soldier and the athlete that Paul liked so much. In those days athletes received a crown of laurels as a symbol of immortality: As for me the time of sacrifice has arrived, and the moment of my departure has come.
INTRODUCTION And COMMENTARIES
Cultural changes taking place in all areas of existence also affect the Church. In the beliefs and practices we have been taught, not all comes from Christ, and consequently, many things may change. There is nevertheless a risk of distorting authentic faith. Where then is the rule of faith, to which all our opinions must submit?
This problem already arose in the Church when in 64-67 A.D. Peter and Paul died as martyrs in Rome. The Church, especially in the West, no longer had these witnesses of Christ capable of proclaiming both his deeds and his words. It was as difficult for the Greeks to accept the Christian message as it was for the Jews, and even those of good will among the listeners understood the message—as we do today—through their own ways of thinking, distorting it in proportion to the prejudices of their time.
Then came an opportunity for people eager to discuss, to recount in a better way than did the apostles, even to say what they had not said, and some even took the liberty of teaching their own doctrine. How quickly the imitation of Christ could be replaced by theories and discourses on religion!
So it was that the successors of the apostles had to defend the doctrine they had received from them. At the same time they had to take care in the choice and in the formation of the ministers of the Church for these would have to keep the genuine message. Such are the concerns that we find in these letters to Timothy and Titus.
These letters of similar origin are entitled Paul’s letters. Both the form and content of these letters show that they are not from him. They must have been written in the pressure of circumstances we have just mentioned about 90-100 A.D. It was thought well to place this teaching of the Church under the authority of Paul and doubtless some more personal paragraphs written by him have been inserted: in several passages, we certainly find Paul’s counsels to Timothy and Titus or to other of his assistants.
These three letters of Timothy and Titus are called “pastoral letters” because they address Church shepherds. They truly deserve this name for still another reason that is not always perceived. They are addressed to Paul’s delegates who, although they did not enjoy the title of apostles, were like the itinerant ministers and had authority over the local churches. They are reminded of their missionary ideal for they had devoted their life to Christ and to preaching the Word. Yet at the same time they are ordered to watch over the Church local ministers. Whether they are bishops, elders or deacons, they were elected by the community and spent part of their time in leading and in teaching their brothers and sisters; they also celebrated the sacred sacraments of the Church, baptism, Eucharist and the anointing of the sick.
So we find here two kinds of ministries which complement one another to fulfill the pastoral duties. The first, of which Timothy and Titus are examples extends the mission of the apostles, follows the patterns of their consecrated life and enjoys apostolic authority. The second, trained themselves within the community which elected them. Today we would speak of lay ministers, for they go on belonging to their family and community, although they have been ordained by a laying on of hands and have been accepted or acknowledged by the apostolic authority. We shall strive to understand this complementarity because the subsequent evolution of Latin Church unified these very different ministries in the span of some centuries framing them into one hierarchical clergy. See on this point Num 4:1 and Heb 9:1. New Testament witnesses the different organizations of the early Church in the many cultural areas of Roman Empire. For a part it wanted to be and to remain the Church founded on the apostles, on the other hand, it took example of the Jewish communities with their elders. Afterwards the ministries would evolve or become fixed according to the needs and the social context.
• 1.3 In this first chapter we have a mixture of various topics: it practically repeats what Paul said in other letters where the commentaries have already been given.
We will note only what refers to false prophets. Since the apostles who had seen Christ were dead, some people forgot that all of faith is based on what Christ taught. Instead of reading and actually living the Gospel, certain people began to discuss and work out religious theories. See Introduction to Colossians.
The aim of our warning is love which comes from a pure mind (v. 5). Timothy must be firm in eliminating these discussions that weaken the Church and prevent development of the love that saves people. Even bloody wars came out of sterile religious arguments. The center of the paragraph is doubtless verse 15: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. The new masters remain with their theories instead of facing the reality of sin. It is the reality of our sin that makes the grace of God a grace, and our salvation a true salvation.
• 2.1 Heading the rules for every category of believers, we find rules for the community assemblies with two outstanding points:
– praying for rulers;
– the behavior of women in church.
I urge that petitions be made (v. 1). Paul wants Christians to be in solidarity with their compatriots, loyal toward their nation and praying for them. In spite of its sins and superstitions, the pagan world was religious. Religion accompanied their every action. This explains why, some years later, Christians were persecuted as rebels and traitors because they did not worship the emperor, nor his gods. Perhaps this insistence on prayer for rulers is due to the fact that the paragraph was written when there already was some suspicion about Christians: it was necessary to remove these suspicions.
Faithfulness to Christ does not prevent loyalty to the nation unless the nation becomes an idol, and this happens when, in the name of the nation, people are asked to obey its rulers blindly. We cannot give up criticizing their errors, nor stop considering as our brothers and sisters those who do not agree with us.
We should pray for rulers. Does that mean that we cannot look for more honest and better rulers? Of course, we can: see Romans 13.
Verses 9-14 concern women, and to understand why the letter is so strict, we must recall that there was a lot of talk about freedom in the Church, and there were abuses.
On the other hand, we always have a hard time accepting the demands of the Gospel when society teaches us something different. Jesus’ attitude regarding women was revolutionary and liberating, and at the beginning, the Church followed his example (see 1 Cor 7). Before long, they went back to the usual way of giving a very limited place in society to women and that applied also in their religious assemblies.
In the whole history of the Church there was a great respect for the dignity of women and there were many initiatives favoring them; yet there were few periods when women enjoyed equality with men. In many places women were more emancipated during the Middle Ages than closer to our times, in the 19th century. Likewise, in urban societies dealing with business, in the world and in the Church, women occupied a place very different from that granted them in more closed societies.
In fact, the Church alone does not change the world and society until people have learned to know the human reality better.
This passage, reminding us of 1 Cor 11:1-10 and 14:34, opposes women’s emancipation with the same biblical arguments commonly used by the Jewish masters.
God wants all to be saved. Paul repeats in his own way the passage from the last words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: the Gospel must be preached to everyone, to all the nations. Perhaps only a minority will believe but this evangelization is necessary so that all humanity may reach the goal fixed by God.
• 3.1 Here Paul deals with leaders, bishops and deacons (see commentary on Titus 1:6 and Phil 1:1).
• 14. This short paragraph reminds us that, if indeed we are in charge of the Church of God, we are neither its founders nor its masters. The Church was born through a merciful intervention of God, when he decided that his Son should identify with the human race, as is expressed in this short poem.
Here we use divine blessing (v. 16) for a word that we translated elsewhere as “piety” or “religion” (see 2:2; 4:7; 6:3; 5, 6; 2 Tim 3:5 and Titus 1:1). In those years, the word was mostly used to mean a loving attitude toward the Father and neighbors, characteristic of true believers who simply imitate God’s example.
The Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. We must understand this phrase as referring to the concepts of that time: from above, from a world in which everything is truth, God lowers his Truth to the earth, as a column or a visible sign on which we can lean. In spite of all the infidelities of the Church, God uses it to preserve true knowledge of the Father, the Son and the Spirit in the world. Without this knowledge, people cannot be free, nor can humanity reach its maturity.
• 4.1 After the death of the apostles, new masters who tamper with the faith appear in the Church.
One of the numerous errors of these people is to despise all that comes from the body: they condemn marriage, forbid meat and wine. Concerning marriage, see the Introduction to Colossians. For those who said matter comes from evil powers whereas souls come from God who is good, having children was to imprison in an evil body souls which later would have to be saved. This is why they condemned, not sexual relations but marriage and procreation. In this contempt of the body and of a nature created by God, there is nothing Christian (see Col 2:23).
In the last days (v. 1): these are the days beginning with Jesus’ resurrection and stretching to his second coming (Heb 1:2; James 5:3).
The Spirit tells us clearly. The prophets of the Church often predicted that people would come to preach their own theories, and not authentic faith.
The believers receive with thanksgiving. From the beginning, it was the custom in Christian families to give thanks to God at the family meal.
Train yourself in godliness (v. 7). Here we have another danger. Contrary to teachers who despise life and want us to live as strange characters, there are others who are totally absorbed in external things. In the Greco-Roman world there was much enthusiasm for sports and races. Without despising the body we are asked to check if we give each part the importance it deserves and the time corresponding to it.
• 11. Faced with all these false teachers, Timothy must be an example of a true apostle.
Let no one reproach you on account of your youth. Usually, in the Christian communities and in the Jewish ones, the leaders were older men. This is why they were called “elders“ or “presbyters” (which means the same thing). Timothy, who is visiting the church on behalf of Paul, has authority over these elders, even though he is much younger than they are. The example of his sincere faith and profound knowledge of the Bible will be his strength.
Do not neglect the spiritual gift (v. 14). If someone was named to a ministry or an official position in the church, this was considered as a spiritual gift: for example, presbyters, deacons, bishops, prophets. While other gifts, such as healing the sick, came directly from the Holy Spirit, ministries were received through a laying on of hands. An apostle or a prophet would lay his hands on the candidate to transfer to him the authority that he had received in a similar way. Thus, in the Church, every leader receives his authority from Christ through a succession of people going back to the apostles.
On this occasion the prophets present would also address the candidate with exhortations and warnings (see 1:18).
Devote yourself to reading, preaching and teaching until I come. This counsel is always valid. To be steadfast in reading and study is what costs most in the majority of liberal professions. Very few people are courageous enough to persevere in study once they have passed their examinations. This is so, even in the Church. The “pastors,” clergy and lay, are constantly tempted in thinking such and such an activity is pastorally useful, that leisure is “relaxing” even at the cost of postponing study and meditation on the Word. The Church is always lacking people able to express their faith creatively – a gift that springs from spiritual knowledge and habitual contact with the Word of God: smiles, goodwill and psychology cannot replace this charism.
• 5.1 From the beginning, women had their own unique role in the Church. Some of them, called widows occupied an official position.
Paul sees three kinds of widows: some did not need help from the Church because they had relatives; others did need Church assistance. Finally, there were some, with or without the help of the Church, who were in charge of certain functions.
They deserve condemnation… (v. 12). This means that by leaving her position and marrying, the “widow” of the third category broke a commitment she had made publicly. The “widows” were dedicated to the service of Christ in the same way as religious women of today.
A true widow is she who has set her hope on God. We should read what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 concerning the greater freedom celibates have to serve the Lord. Every baptized person is called to belong totally to Christ. If, through circumstances of life, we are alone again and free from family responsibilities, this may be an invitation from God to dedicate ourselves completely to the service of the Church and to constant prayer.
If today retired Christians looked into their lives in the light of God’s presence, the Church would have more leaders and missionaries than are necessary.
• 17. Paul speaks again of the elders or “presbyters” who are in charge of the local community. Paul wants the community to help its leaders spiritually and financially.
We have already noted that the elders who were in charge of the community and who presided at the Eucharist were chosen from the most esteemed believers. This paragraph shows that the primary service expected from them was the preaching of the Word.
They deserve double compensation. It is rather astonishing to see that in many parishes the council consists of more lay people competent in social or material matters than persons of the Word, learned or prophetic, capable of giving life to the community.
They must fulfill their duties. Rebuke him in the presence of the community as a warning to the rest: the first Christians were no angels. Sometimes their enthusiastic and sincere faith needed strong discipline in order for them to remain faithful to their commitments. Besides when have leaders of communities not caused problems?
In 5:18 note the quotation of the Gospel: “the worker deserves his wages” (Lk 10:7). This passage shows us that when this letter was written, towards the year 90, the Gospels were already considered “Scripture.”
At the beginning and end of the chapter, the author insists on faithfulness to tradition. Faith is not a doctrine that can be adapted to one’s tastes. Leaders are required to have a respectful and humble attitude towards this treasure entrusted to them to be transmitted to others. We can already see two faults:
– instead of deepening faith, some multiply words;
– some replace surrender to God’s Word with a critical attitude that attempts to judge faith and decide if it agrees with their own ideas.
Money is mentioned twice (6:10 and 6:17-19). After the first years of enthusiastic faith, the Church finds that, even for believers, everything is lost when love for money persists. That is the drama in certain countries where solid Christian groups have been caught up with the best of society in the pursuit of money: faith continues to be important for them but this faith only motivates fidelity to religious practice. Money that has become our security lessens our trust in God (6:10) and isolates us from others.
The pastors of the Church should be the most aware of the danger (6:11). Salvation for them will be to place themselves in the less secure areas of life and society, where an act of faith is constantly necessary to overcome difficulties and joyously accept sacrifices (v. 12). It is not in seeking first of all our personal fulfillment that we become God’s agent and a witness of Christ, as he himself has been the witness of the Father (6:13).
Paul calls upon Timothy to avoid all those dangers and remain true to faith and free from greed. By doing so, he will be “a man of God,” a witness of Christ.
The First Letter to the Thessalonians taught us the importance of looking forward to the coming of Christ in Paul’s preaching.
The hope for the Day of Christ was a powerful incentive for preserving the faith of the first Christians. Yet it could lead to an unhealthy nervousness. The Church of Thessalonica was the first example of those minorities and persecuted groups in whom the expectation of the end of the world distorts the normal development of Christian life.
In this letter, written a few months after the first one, Paul tries to reassure the community.
• 1.1 We again encounter the same ideas we have explained in 1 Thessalonians. A persecuted community. The basis of Christian life: faith, hope (or endurance), love. The day of Christ.
• 6. When the apostles preached to the pagans, they insisted on the judgment of God (Rom 1:18; Acts 17:31). In fact, these pagans never thought they would be judged at the end of their lives. For almost a century there has been a tendency among us Christians not to mention judgment in reaction to several centuries when it was over emphasized and with it the fear of punishment. Actually, the evangelization of modern pagans, in whom conscience has not even been awakened in the family, demands that it be spoken of as in Paul’s time.
To know that good and evil exist, that life prepares for definitive salvation (or the loss of it) and that God will judge us is an essential basis for Christian life. It is precisely from this truth that many turn away, saying for example that God is all-love, or imagining successive existences where we can catch up for our mistakes.
Indeed it is just that God repays with affliction. Let us not forget that the letters to the Thessalonians are the earliest of Paul’s letters. Even if it was his duty to remind them of the judgment, as did the prophets, and Jesus himself—certainly he had not yet totally purified his thirst for justice of every trace of violence. This violence against the wicked has been (and still is in many religions) a support for faith, but Jesus has invited us to get rid of it (Mt 13:29).
Coming from heaven… he will do justice. In the early years of the apostles, it was believed that the Day of the Lord would soon come and judgment (the Last Judgment) would inaugurate the reign of God the Father (1 Cor 15:24). We now suppose—perhaps mistakenly—that it is not imminent, and we prefer to think of judgment as coming at the death of each one: individual judgment.
• 2.1 Do not be alarmed. What happens in Thessalonica is what frequently occurs in a persecuted community: people tend to withdraw from real life. There are rumors that the Lord’s coming is imminent and hope verges on hysteria. This is why Paul reminds them of certain truths, some of which are not new, for the Old Testament had more than once spoken of crises that would precede the Judgment. We cannot take as literally true all that the prophets have said on this subject, for they spoke with images proper to their time. They did agree in announcing difficult times for believers and almost a triumph, to begin with, for God’s enemies. Jesus did not disagree.
The apostasy must come first. Before Christ’s return, there must be a “general apostasy,” or a worldwide religious crisis. An “antichrist” must come. It is true that there are antichrists in all times (see 1 Jn 2:18). Yet, at the end, there will be a more typical antichrist than all the previous ones. Christ will return in glory at the time the Church seems crushed.
You know what prevents him (v. 6). For us, this phrase is obscure. For Paul the apostasy is that of the nations already converted to the Gospel and the force of evil was already at work within them (v. 7). It is probable that Paul follows the thinking of the “apocalyptic” authors (some of their works are part of the Bible, among others Ezekiel 38–39 and Daniel 2–10). Everything happens at the time fixed by God and every person in history lasts the time needed to carry out the good and the evil that he has within himself.
Therefore, there cannot be apostasy or antichrist as long as two preceding events have not taken place: the Gospel has to be proclaimed to all the nations (Mk 13:10), and judgment passed on the Jewish nation. The fact that these events have not been realized, especially the second (1 Thes 2:16), is perhaps for Paul the reason why the coming of the antichrist is not imminent.
Paul had no idea that the time of the nations mentioned in Luke (21:24) would last for so many centuries; for him, it was a matter of years. Let us keep in mind his way of foreseeing the end of the world. All that is in human history must mature; history will end with a last adventure inspired by diabolical pride; faith or the rejection of the Gospel will be at the heart of the worldwide confrontation.
God will send them the power of delusion. Once again we have the Hebrew turn of phrase that should be translated: God will allow the forces of deceit to act. The same people who do not take into account decisive arguments in favor of the faith, later follow doctrines and opinions without foundation.
Paul invites the Church, as he did in 1 Thessalonians, to follow his instructions and rules. He is more severe in insisting that they have an obligation to work: if everybody works, their faith will be more peaceful.
• 13. Note the word traditions used by Paul. The traditions are the customs, rites and teachings that people pass down from one generation to another. They are also the usages and lifestyles which are adopted upon joining a community. Jesus condemned the exaggerated importance the Pharisees gave to their own traditions, to the point that they prevailed over God’s commandments (see Mk 7:5). Yet Jesus himself, while he was with his apostles, taught them a certain way of praying, of doing, and of living in fellowship. It is in this sense that Paul here speaks of traditions: see Traditions and Tradition in the commentary on Mark 7:1.
In the year 50, Paul arrived in Thessalonica, a major city and the capital of the province of Macedonia (see Acts 17:1). Here, after being rejected by the Jews, he addressed his preaching to the pagans and succeeded in forming a community. After barely three months, a riot caused by the Jews forced him to leave.
What is going to happen to these recent converts to whom Paul taught the mere basics of Christian life?
Paul is quite concerned, so he sends Timothy to see them and to strengthen their church. Timothy comes back with an optimistic report and Paul, reassured, sends this letter at the beginning of 51.
This is the oldest writing of the New Testament.
• 1.1 Faith, endurance, love. For us, sometimes hope (or: endurance) goes unnoticed between faith and love. For Paul it has two important meanings:
– Those who hope bear trials and persecutions with patience and perseverance. That is why Paul speaks of faith, perseverance and love. As we know from the Gospel, hope is not an easy optimism; it is the capacity to endure when faced with trials.
y”>– The person with hope looks forward to the glorious coming of Christ who will judge this world and take us to the next one. He frees us from impending punishment. In those years, all believers were convinced that judgment was imminent and that they would witness Christ’s coming.
The Gospel we brought you was such not only in words (v. 5). There were many signs, miracles and other manifestations in Thessalonica. Perhaps God increased the signs in view of the coming persecution; since very soon there would not be many with adequate formation to orient the community. In fact the Gospel cannot be proclaimed without God doing something to confirm it (Mk 16:17). Jesus criticized those who came to him to see miracles, but he performed miracles throughout his ministry. Let us not say: “I do not need miracles to believe.” Human beings as we are, we will have quite a different enthusiasm if we see that God is beside us, doing the incredible to confirm his word.
• 2.1 As a nursing mother who feeds and cuddles her baby (v. 7): Paul’s tenderness. Paul recalls the work and energy he spent to convince, to call each one personally. The conversion of a single person demands perseverance, weariness and struggles for the
All the Christians of Paul’s time know that the mother Church in Jerusalem has been the first to suffer heavy persecution. For the Thessalonians, it was also an honor to have remained
Some people will find Paul’s words concerning the Jews harsh and exaggerated: It is obvious that verses 15-16 do not refer to all the Jews or to the Jewish people of future time. Paul means those Jews and Judeo-Christians who persecute him from city to city. The divine sentence condemning them has already been pronounced yet they reflect his experience, verified in Acts 15–28.
• 3.1 May the Lord increase more and more your love for each other and for all people (v. 12). Love manifests itself first within the community and then it must be expanded to all people.
Note also Paul’s constant preoccupation: his apostolic mission does not allow him to remain in any community. He is always moving, leaving his work unfinished, but he entrusts his converts to the grace of God that does not suppress the freedom of the recent converts nor the work of the Tempter in the world.
You know that such is our destiny (v. 3). There is no church, nor Christian life, without trials and persecutions.
• 4.1 If we have given ourselves to Christ, that should surely make our life different from what we lived before. The Jews who accepted baptism had a solid moral basis in the laws of the Old Testament. On the other hand, the pagans had only the moral laws observed in their society. Chastity, among others, was completely foreign to them. They considered occasional sexual relationships a necessity of nature, having nothing to do with moral values.
Paul reacts strongly: The will of God for you is to become holy and not to have unlawful sex. Facing what humans consider demands of nature, are other demands due simply to the fact that God has called us and put us on the path to divinization (Paul says: sanctification). Paul will take up the same argument in other words in 1 Cor 6:12-20. Here in verses 4-8, Paul is certainly thinking of adultery and relationships with prostitutes. If he were living in our social context, he would surely include sexual freedom among youth.
Paul never ceases telling us we are free. He passes over liturgical rules, customs proper to Jewish people—reminders of the past—all that kept believers in a religion of obedience to laws. He reaffirms fundamental moral rules that are valid at all times and in all places, especially when one has entered through the Gospel the age of spiritual maturity.
• 13. Lest you grieve as do those who have no hope. The Thessalonian community is made up of Christians who are all recent converts with little experience. For years they had accepted the fate of being born to die. Now, on the contrary, they awaken each day with the assurance of overcoming death: Christ will come soon and take them to the heavenly Kingdom. They are grieved nevertheless over their dead relatives whom Christ will not be able to save. This is what they thought because Greek culture had difficulties believing in a resurrection of the dead.
Those who are already asleep. Those who have died are not dead, but they are asleep, waiting for the time of the resurrection, the time of rising as new persons transformed by Christ: we will all be transformed. The word “cemetery” comes from a word meaning sleeping place.
God will bring them together with Jesus. Paul supposes that he and his readers will be alive when Christ returns and he describes the event according to the cultural expressions of the time. Let us not forget that up to the time of Galileo, everyone thought that heaven had its place in the universe, very high above and that God, although a spirit, was in some way present there.
We will be with the Lord forever. That is essential and always true even if it does not mean that Jesus will come on a beautiful cloud to the sound of heavenly trumpets. We already have some experience of the Lord’s presence in our earthly life, but then there will be nothing but this presence and this joy.
This brief message of hope leaves obscure essential questions concerning the resurrection of the dead. Paul will fully deal with this subject later on in 1 Cor 15. There he will show that resurrection is first a transformation of our whole being through the energies flowing from the resurrected Christ.
Comfort one another. The way of celebrating funerals in the Church must comfort the dead person’s relatives and strengthen their faith in the resurrection. There is no room for expressions of despair which Jesus himself scorned (see Mk 5:40): these are peculiar to people who consider the separation to be final. A funeral mass without any spectacular display, when the fervent prayer of the community is experienced, produces a great impact on people who are indifferent.
Paul then gives a warning he will repeat at the end of this letter (5:14): all should work. The community is disturbed by certain believers more inclined to attract attention with an enthusiastic show of faith rather than work; they discredit the Church in the eyes of pagans. Paul, the good Jew and Pharisee he was, could earn his own living by manual labor. He would not have understood how a believer could be without some qualification and unable to find an outlet, be it well or poorly considered and paid.
• 5.1 Christ comes at night and believers are people of the light. These words are rich in meaning. Those who follow their evil desires are people of darkness, hiding to do evil. While children of the light are beyond reproach, transparent before God and with nothing to hide from him. The unbeliever sleeps and is off-guard while the believer keeps watch and stays awake: he likes to pray all night long until dawn as if waiting for the day to welcome Christ. As for those who have died, they are not dead: they are only “asleep,” ready to rise when the Lord comes.
Encourage one another and build up one another (v. 11). In this the Church is seen as the true community needed by believers so they can grow in faith and overcome trials. In every difficulty, the help of the community will be the proof that we are surrounded by the love of God and of Christ, as was said in the first line of the letter.
According to verse 12, after only three months of evangelization this community already had leaders
• 19. Do not quench the Spirit (v. 19). A community such as this with few traditions and written instructions, depended on the intervention of the Spirit. Among these Christians there were some gifted with the charism of prophets: they would receive their communications during the Eucharistic assemblies. That is why Paul asks to profit by these spiritual messages, but not without first examining them as he will remind them in 1 Cor 14. This is a delicate situation: the community is subject to the Spirit who speaks through the prophet, but it must—and its leaders must—judge if it is truly the Spirit of God speaking.
May you be completely blameless in spirit, soul and body (v. 23). Neither the Jews nor the majority of Greeks would have agreed with our definition of the human: body and soul. They spoke at the same time of the soul that gives life to the body and deals with material activities, and of the spirit that is capable of truth and justice.
Paul’s way of speaking, like the great spiritual Christians, shares this conception. When Paul speaks of the deep life of believers, he does not use the word soul but spirit. We do not face God as we do in facing an interlocutor and look at each other from the exterior: to understand better our relationship with God, through the Spirit we must think of what unites beings who love each other and in some way live in one another.
According to the Bible, God’s Spirit can be omnipresent, insinuate itself, adapt itself, become our spirit without ceasing to be itself. Our spirit is not a part of ourselves, it is us, and it is at the same time our access to God. Our soul expresses itself in different ways, for example in dreams. We only discover our spirit in the measure of our experience of God. Only when we see God shall we truly know what and who we are.
Philemon from Colossae has a slave named Onesimus: a typical name for a slave since Onesimus means “useful” (v. 11). Onesimus escapes and goes to Rome where he expects to disappear in the crowd. Accidentally, or luckily, he meets Paul whom he had known in his master’s house. At this point, Paul is imprisoned in Rome, but enjoys certain privileges enabling him to go out in the company of a policeman. Onesimus is converted and baptized; then Paul makes him go back to his former master with the letter of recommendation that we read here.
Paul asks that the slave be seen as a brother, and even suggests that the slave be freed (v. 21).
We have already seen the advice Paul gives to slaves in Col 3:22. In those first years of the Church, obtaining God’s life in Christ seemed such a tremendous privilege, providing such inner freedom, that being a slave or being free did not greatly matter (see 1 Cor 7:17).
At that time no one thought that a change of social structure was feasible: there were slaves and there would always be slaves. The Christians were few and without any influence. Thus, they were not concerned about reforming society, nor about laws to eliminate slavery. Even before the time it became necessary to think about changing the laws, faith was already against treating slaves as “objects” or inferiors: because they were Christians, an increasing number of masters—in the Church—spontaneously renounced their rights and granted freedom to their slaves.
Many people think that the Christian community has nothing to say concerning their responsibilities to society. Here, on the contrary, we see how Paul involves the whole community in Philemon’s problem.
Towards the year 62, Paul, a prisoner in Rome, writes to the Christians of Colossae, who, without being aware of it, belittle Christ. They do not feel assured with only faith in Christ and they want to add some practices from the Old Testament. Or they try to include Christ in a board of celestial persons, or “angels” who are supposed to have the key to our destiny in hand.
Something was lacking in them and in the majority of their contemporaries. They were caught in the Roman Empire which had imposed its peace on the known world at that time, but also prevented them from living a life of their own. They fell back on the “spiritual.” Secret doctrines offered to lead their “perfect ones” to a higher state and theories called “gnosis” (that is, knowledge) were drawn up on the origin of the human and the world. According to them, all comes from a cosmic soup that had been boiling for ages, with impressive celestial families of angels or “eons”, male and female, who devour each other, couple and finally imprison sparks of spirit in material bodies. So people are manufactured who, after “putting on” a series of successive existences, may return to the kingdom of light.
Caught in the wind of these fine discourses, the Colossians went the way of certain Christians today who trust in their devotion to souls or who allow their life to be led by spiritualism, astrology and horoscopes. They no longer consider Christ as the only savior since they give the priority to others or to practices that are not of the Church.
This crisis in the Church of the first century gave us this letter of Paul where he establishes the absolute supremacy of Christ. As in other letters of Paul, the letter to the Colossians mentions that Timothy is with him (1:1). Paul chose him as assistant and looked on him as “his true Son in Christ.” Perhaps it was Timothy who wrote a fair part of this letter; it would explain the difference in style from the more authentic of Paul’s letters while its content—exceptionally rich—is constantly faithful to the inspiration of the apostle. On this subject see the Letter to the Ephesians which has the same themes as the one to the Colossians, but in a more developed way. In several passages of Colossians, relevant commentaries in Ephesians will be indicated.
• 1.1 Paul, as usual, praises his readers. Actually, he is writing because of the information Epaphras gave him about the Colossians’ concerns.
Epaphras, about whom Paul speaks (1:7), is a man from Colossae. When Paul was organizing the evangelization of the province of Ephesus (see Acts 19:26 and 20:4), he did not go to every city, but would send his assistants. Epaphras of Colossae announced the Good News and had started to form communities in Colossae and then in the neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis (see Col 4:13). He was the man who came to Rome to inform Paul of the difficulties.
Your faith… your love… in hope… (vv. 4-5). Paul constantly regroups these three Christian powers: believe, love and hope. In the Christian world, they are called theological virtues (i.e., powers that go straight to God). The three go together, otherwise they do not exist. In a sense hope is the first: if it is no longer alive, faith and love remain powerless.
Straight away, Paul presents faith as being matchless: the Gospel has already been preached and believed throughout the world (v. 6) (which is rather too quickly said); faith opens for us the way to true knowledge: precisely what the Colossians are looking for (see Introduction); through this faith God has already placed us in the kingdom of Light (v. 12).
He has transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. While the Colossians are interested in an invisible world of supernatural forces, where luminous powers battle with those of darkness (see the Introduction, and also Eph 1:21), Paul immediately clarified the situation: there is nothing other than the power of Darkness and the kingdom of the Son.
• 15. Paul shows that the angels or invisible powers (v. 16) whether from the Bible or the story tellers of “gnosis” with their Thrones, Authorities, Principles… are nothing compared with Christ. He is neither agent nor intermediary of a creative adventure without a true creator. He is not one of the saviors of a history rather impersonal: there is only God-Creator and in him is Christ. See the same idea in Hebrews 1.
In Galatians 4:1-5 Paul recognizes that the history of humanity has been deeply marked by natural and social forces that he does not name. He also affirms that since the resurrection of Jesus, it is he who has in hand all the movement of history (Rev 5:3-5). Something that may astonish those among us who think all history is the responsibility of humankind. In one sense, they are right but on condition that they do not forget the Firstborn, the one who has already come to the end of history and of whom we say he is Lord (Phil 2:11) of history.
He is the image of the unseen God. We should not imagine that God has a human form beyond the clouds, and that Jesus is his image; human creature is the image of God, but God is not in the image of human creature.
In all that he is and in all that he does, Christ among us is the perfect image of the Father and of his mercy: his actions reveal God’s way of thinking and acting. Already before he became man, the Son of God existed in God, as the eternal and invisible image of God eternal and invisible, the radiance of the glory of the Father (Heb 1:3), the Expression or Word of God (Jn 1:1).
For all creation, he is the firstborn. We take this word in its biblical sense. He is not the first of many creatures, but the one who has a place apart. In his human nature, Christ is a Galilean Jew, a descendant of David. His person, however, is rooted in God and is presented to us as the model and the firstborn not of people but of all creation.
God was pleased to let fullness dwell in him who is the only bridge between God and the universe. The fullness of God is in him to be communicated to the universe, and the fullness of the universe will be found in him when all human beings are reconciled and reunited in him.
All was made through him: Jn 1:1 and Heb 1:2.
And was the first raised… Paul says more precisely “and as the first fruits offered to God, was raised” (as in 1 Cor 15:23). He has not come only for the forgiveness of sins, but for a “passover,” a passage from death to life, and his resurrection after his total abandonment to his Father was a first necessary step so that we too would have a resurrection.
God willed to reconcile. Once again the work of Christ is presented as reconciliation: reconciliation between people (2 Cor 5:17-21) and reconciliation of the whole of creation.
• 21. Paul now requires the Colossians to keep their feet on the ground. Do not waste your time imagining struggles between celestial beings and evil ones. The struggle is here below and costs blood and life. This is why Paul reminds his readers what he himself is suffering because of the Gospel.
The body of Christ is the place where the peace of all humanity with God, and peace between individuals and nations can be achieved (Eph 2:11).
That you may be, without fault, holy and blameless before him (v. 22): see commentary on Eph 5:26.
I complete in my own flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. After Christ’s death something would be lacking in the salvation of the world, if Jesus’ followers and apostles did not, in their turn, meet with trials and sufferings. Working for the Church means suffering for the Church; to work for the rule of justice is to suffer for the sake of justice.
His mysterious plan: see Eph 3:5. We must not forget that in those days, no one even thought of the common destiny of humanity: they did not even speak of humanity. Moreover, neither the Greeks nor the Romans looked beyond their actual existence. Paul is amazed by the generosity of God whose promises are for all people, without distinction (v. 27). We, too, are offered nothing less than a share in the Glory of God, that is to say, all the riches found in him.
• 2.1 I want you to know how I strive for you. This struggle of Paul signifies labor (1:28-29) and prayer (4:2 and Rom 15:30). It would be very tempting (and it is the temptation of the Colossians) to make Christianity an attractive religion, with beautiful explanations, leaving people hanging on to their dreams and passions, a religion that does not attack the sin rooted in our way of life and in our society. To join the attack we must first be convinced that it is in Christ that we find the whole mystery of God.
Let no one deceive you. Philosophy and the search for wisdom are highly respectable. Philosophies always contain some truth; their danger is in seeming to give a total response to our problems. They are deceptive insofar as they come from philosophers who have in fact had either a limited or questionable experience of human reality. In faith, on the contrary, rather than a discourse on human concerns, we have a person: Christ. While all the currents of thought are the product of their day and grow old with time, Paul assures us that all the fullness of God is in Christ in a human form.
• 11. Paul has just said that a Christian has wisdom and is on a way of knowledge. He now reminds us that our entry into the Church has been much more than an exterior rite. Through baptism, we have become part of this renewal of the world brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Paul had been circumcised, and knew from experience that it did not save him. We can be fairly sure baptism did not also miraculously free him of his aggressiveness and weaknesses, but he began to live his human existence differently. He had been liberated, among other things, of what weighed heavily on him: religion with all its commandments. Religion for him was not, as it is for some who like principles, a defensive shield as necessary as a policeman: religion was for him a reminder of a debt towards God, something that made love and real trust impossible. Jesus in dying had nailed to the cross all kinds of fears of God; at the same time he did away with all the moral principles and pressures (“powers and authorities” of v. 15) that smother our free response to God.
In some countries, many people are baptized but baptism scarcely changes their life and generally speaking they do not belong to communities seeking to renew their faith. It is not enough for us to admit that we are poor Christians, that we have not really buried the sinner within us. Our resurrection depends, first of all on faith in God who resurrected Jesus, who has pardoned us, and prepared everything so that we may live our life.
• 16. Paul has just reminded us that baptism is the beginning of a new life. It is not a matter of replacing old commandments with better commandments: the coming of Christ has put an end to all religions with commandments. That will perhaps shock many Christians: should we not obey the commandments of God and of the Church? What will become of us if there are no longer religious duties?
Indeed there is no religious group—no Christian community—without rites, habits, commandments: what would become of a community where the members would no longer gather to hear the word of God or celebrate the Eucharist? Paul nevertheless shows it is finished with religions where the most important consideration is to do or not to do, where it is believed that God likes us to rest on such a day, not to eat such and such a food, to dress in a certain way, abstain from this or that. Religions give great importance to these laws for they help the faithful to maintain their cohesion and to retain their own identity. All that deforms the idea we have of God. All that is human regulation, very useful perhaps, old fashioned perhaps, but still always human. Paul says: God does not share our interest in what is transient, in our cooking, feast days and the like; he does not treat us like little children, saying, “Don’t do that!”
All that may seem very religious. Religious prohibitions always impress those who are not free of their fear of God. Instead of freeing us and leading us to child-like trust in God, these restrictions favor a narrow-mindedness, and later violence exerted against those who think differently from us.
Do not be mistaken in thinking that contempt for the body is a sign of holiness (v. 23). Fewer kilos do not mean more Spirit! The penances and sacrifices that we impose on ourselves could cause us to feel superior to others. If you belong to a group that has its fasts, would you not like it to be known?
Let no one criticize you. Who is going to criticize us for celebrating Sunday with the resurrection of the Lord instead of the Jewish Sabbath?
• 3.1 Here we have what was said about baptism (2:12) which joins us to Christ and makes us share in all his wealth. Since Christ left this earth, we leave it too: what is best in our lives, what motivates us to do things is neither visible, nor is it of the earth. God alone knows the riches of the believer’s heart, even when her life seems tarnished by various faults and weaknesses: one day God will manifest the goodness, the “glory” which we do not yet see (see Mt 25:31-46).
Put to death what is earthly in your life. It is not that we have to kill ourselves, but to destroy egoism, wickedness, envy, excessive confidence in self, for sin is there. Being free of a religion of commandments should not make us less aware of what is required in a new life: it means being still more perfect (Mt 5:20 and 48).
• 9. See Ephesians 4:20-24 where Paul develops the same idea of the new self created in Christ and of the old self which must be abandoned.
While the old self is self-centered, enslaved by passions, the new self is characterized by a communal attitude, a constant concern for others. He lives with a thankful heart.
• 18. The brief counsel given to spouses (vv. 18-19) will be largely developed in Eph 5:21-33. Paul would not accept the attitude of many Christians who say: “Religion has nothing to do with what I do in my home, my work, my leisure, or in politics.” On the contrary, Paul insists that Christians live all of this before the Lord, for the Lord and in the Lord.
This is why Paul preaches the same ethics to everyone: men, women, slaves (we would say bosses and workers); all must be just, loyal and respectful of others, even when they have faults. We should struggle to bring about change and defend our rights; but we must lead these struggles and live our commitments according to the spirit of Christ. Very often what we ask for in order to change the world is less important than the way in which we ask it, and it is often there that a Christian will give a witness that only she can give. Let others be successful whatever the means that are taken and whatever the disastrous consequences for society: see on this subject the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5–7).
• 4.2 All this is commented on in Ephesians 6:18-21.
Onesimus is a runaway slave who returns to Colossae with Tychicus after Paul converted him to the faith (see Letter to Philemon).
The evangelist Mark, now reconciled with Paul (see Acts 15:38), is with him. Luke (v. 14) mentioned here is the author of the Gospel and Acts.
We can see there was much communication between churches of different places. Each one was not locked within its own community: had this been the case, within a short time, there would have been as many religions as there were churches. Quite to the contrary, they were conscious of being the Church of Christ, established in various places, but with one testimony concerning Christ, which explains the interest the believers had in keeping in close contact with one another. At a time in which it seemed difficult to preserve unity due to the distance and differences among the people, the power that preserved unity—more than a rigid organization—was the profound sense all the people had that the church was a “communion” or a community enlivened by the Spirit of Christ.
Nowadays when we attempt to form “basic Christian communities,” we must also be careful to remain in contact and in harmony with other communities.
Here again a real letter from Paul, personal, full of attention and tenderness that Paul sent from prison to the community that had always been the most concerned for his well-being. More than once Paul counted on their material assistance, showing the confidence he had in them. Usually, in order to avoid any suspicion of personal interest, he preferred to earn his living while continuing his mission. In this letter we have the famous page: “Let the same project that was in Christ Jesus be found in you.”
We have just said it is a real letter from Paul. Actually, all in it does not follow, as if fragments of several letters from Paul had been combined. We shall draw attention to it as we proceed: 2:19, 21; 4:1. It may well be a question of two short letters, one where Paul wanted to give his news and to thank, the other a warning, in the same style as the letter to the Galatians.
When Paul’s letters were gathered together, the most important were arranged according to length: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians. Then came those we call “captivity letters.” It is there we have Philippians between Ephesians and Colossians as if the three had been sent from the same prison. Yet there is every reason to think that Philippians was not written when Paul was in Rome, about 60 A.D., but several years earlier, more like 56 A.D. Perhaps he was at that time imprisoned in Ephesus.
• 1.1 With their bishops and deacons. In Acts we saw how the apostles used to establish a community, a church, in every city where they proclaimed the Gospel. They did not leave without having established a council of leaders, called presbyters, or elders, according to Jewish custom. After a few years bishops, or supervisors, stood out: they may have been the leading members of the council of presbyters. They were not then like today’s bishops.
As to the deacons, they were in charge of various services in the community. And may have done missionary work in areas that did not yet have a community.
God began such a good work in you, I am certain that he will complete it in the day of Christ Jesus (v. 6). The end for which they long is always the manifestation (2 Thes 1:7), or the visit, or the Day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 1:8). No work is done without the expectation of the day when there will be all that one dreamed about. There is no Christian life where someone is content with looking forward to his retirement or feels fulfilled because he has a country house or because the family is growing up without a problem. Let us stop saying these first Christians still had the “illusion” of an early return of Christ. They wanted to meet him personally and be transfigured by him. That is an illusion only for those who enclose themselves in oases of peace within a world in crisis.
Knowledge and discernment… A good heart and generosity are not everything in Christian life. We are not saved, we do not reach our true stature, we are not remade as God would like us to be, unless clarity has guided generosity. It is the same for world salvation. God calls us to discover new ways. We need to reflect, to be attentive, what we could call “revision of life,” in order to discover what is positive and negative in our daily life, work relationships, social duties, leisure. This reflection, however, is not sufficient: among God’s gifts, there is spiritual knowledge that gives us a fresh vision of the order of values and of the will of God.
• 12. Paul is not only persecuted by the Jews: even in the Church “false brothers,” delighted he is in prison, see in this situation the possibility of increasing their own importance. The problem is one for all times: the great names of the apostolate have spent half of their energy in limiting the harm caused by rivals or by powerful groups in the Church. Paul, however, is gifted with wisdom: he sees that even if many do for personal interest what they believe they are doing for God, he knows how to turn it to account.
I am hopeful, even certain, that I shall not be ashamed (v. 20). Paul’s concern is that his trial and his appearances should serve to reveal Christ’s message to the authorities.
Christ is my life. It is quite trendy to say that Christians should “understand the world” and be “fully human.” This is true in a certain way, but it does not say everything. God’s love increases in us through the gift of ourselves to persons and to tasks that he entrusts to us, but as the love of God grows, the desire of Christ and eternity takes root with it: this desire makes us like strangers in the world.
Paul would like to see his friends but not for that will he linger over fraternal meals in which his friends would try to provide him with a warm atmosphere. His deep desire is for what he still lacks: to meet Christ in his glory (see 2 Cor 4:16 and Phil 3:10).
I desire greatly to leave this life and to be with Christ (v. 23). Thus, those who say that a person ceases to exist at the time of death and only recovers life in the resurrection at the end of times are wrong. See 2 Cor 5:8 also.
• 27. See how throughout this paragraph Paul invites the Philippians to fully share his own struggle: he is in prison, but they must remain in the front line of the battle. What does he expect? First that their community be a true one (v. 27). Unity is a decisive sign for those who see us from the outside. Uphold the faith of the Gospel with one heart. Whether there be a persecution or not, people from the outside will try to divide us.
• 2.1 Unity is often supported by a shared feeling of being the best, or the strongest, or having to contend with another group: in that way many religious groups maintain their strength, their discipline and the efforts and sacrifices needed for this. All that is also found in Christian groups, but it should not be, for we have another spirit (Lk 9:55). With us, unity will follow from much humility and understanding of others. Here, Paul gives the secret of Christian co-existence: look for what is humble and do nothing through rivalry or for glory.
In a hymn which is a sort of creed, Paul proposes the example of Christ: his path from God to man, from rich to poor, from first to last, from master to servant.
The Lord Jesus desired to identify with the most humble, the most afflicted, the most despised. Such were Jesus’ attitudes and they must be those of his followers, the Christians. A desire to identify with the most humble and to share with them is the motivation for a truly evangelical life.
In this we must differ from the majority of people who are mainly interested in their personal or family fulfillment. Their ambitions are legitimate, and who among us does not share them at least partly? Yet they have been devalued by Christ by the simple fact that he took the opposite way.
He did not claim equality with God: the mystery of God’s Son who became a mortal man and gave up God’s Glory, although he could have preserved it even in his human life. Since Christ was to be the New Man, glorified by God and placed above everything, his being subject to misery and limitations was a way of being reduced to nothingness.
God exalted him. The humiliation and obedience of Christ were the condition for receiving his glory. He gave him the Name (of God), that is, he made him fully enjoy in his human nature the divine Power (or Name).
• 12. Continue working out your salvation with fear and trembling. It is not a matter of being afraid of God. Paul has just urged his readers to rejoice, since they no longer have the spirit of slaves to make them fearful, but the spirit of sons and daughters (Rom 8:15).
Paul, in fact, has just recalled Christ’s sacrifice and he draws this conclusion: take your life very seriously (this is the meaning of fear and trembling: as does the one who carefully carries a precious load). Be aware that God is at work in you through these good desires that come to you. Live in the presence of God.
• 19. Paul usually deals with personal matters at the end of his letters. Here he seems to interrupt the subject of his letter that he will take up again in 3:1. Paul announces two visits to the Christians of Philippi.
Timothy is Paul’s assistant; he is entrusted with several missions to the communities. It seems that Timothy did not have much authority and could be easily humiliated by those who disliked Paul’s direction.
As to Epaphroditus, he was a Christian from Philippi who had left his family, spent his money and faced risks in order to go and visit Paul. The community of believers must pay attention to its most committed members, who have little means, in order to assist them. The Church sometimes presents as examples, militants from the working class or peasants who were quite forgotten by their brothers and sisters in the faith during their lives.
• 3.1 The discourse of Paul seems to be interrupted here. Paul begins a violent polemic against ill-converted Jews who keep repeating that one must first be faithful to the laws and customs of the Old Testament in order to be a good Christian.
Beware of the dogs…! (v. 2) Paul applies to the Jews, proud of being the chosen people, the very insults that they reserved for non-Jews. Jews were sealed by the circumcision, but they mocked people of other religions who incised their skin (1K 18:28).
Through what Paul says concerning his faithfulness to Judaism, we know something of his past. He was born in Tarsus to a Jewish family who had left their country and had settled there, in “Greek” territory, where they dedicated themselves to business. His parents were wealthy and well thought of since they had the dignity and the rights of Roman citizens (see Acts 22:28). Along with Greek culture, Paul received religious education from the Bible and the Jewish people. He saw firsthand the pagan feasts and sacrifices, but was proud of belonging to God’s people, of being circumcised and instructed in God’s promises to his race. His parents sent him to Jerusalem to study Scripture and the Law with the great masters of his time (see Acts 22:3).
He was a model of strict Pharisee. He did not meet Christ but did meet the early Christians. Because he was faithful to the religion of his ancestors, he believed it was necessary to persecute, imprison and even kill those preaching a new doctrine and deceiving (so he though) the people, since they proclaimed a false, defeated and crucified Messiah.
At times, Paul must have had doubts (Acts 26:14), and increasingly so, when he felt duty bound to increase repression. The Pharisees were against the death penalty. To hesitate or go backwards was to recognize that God had taken another road than the one where he himself had been the defender of God’s cause. Worse still: with Jesus, never more would he be the just man but rather the pardoned sinner. When Jesus forcefully entered into Paul’s life, it was a matter of losing all and Paul from then on accepted to regard as garbage all that he had been proud of.
Forgetting what is behind me (v. 13). Paul only wanted to “forget.” Forget his merits and his gains (in the judgment of others) so as to receive more fully the free grace of God; forget what he already knew of God and be available for new experiences.
I want to know him. The greatest thing for Christians is not to perform miracles, or to speak in tongues, but to know Christ and meet him as a living person. I want to experience the power of his resurrection. All of us would like to feel the presence of God and to see him in some way, but the way to experience his power that transfigures us is by sharing in Christ’s sufferings (2 Cor 1:3-5).
All of us who claim to be perfect (v. 15). See what was said in 1 Cor 2:6. Paul speaks ironically again about those who believe they belong to a superior class of Christians, while he would not dare consider himself to be perfect (v.12).
Finally, he insists on the resurrection. Because we know that our bodies (or persons) will be raised and that the universe will be renewed, we must put passing things in their place: food, wine, sex—all must stop being the idols that enslave us.
• 4.1 Once again the theme is interrupted; this passage seems to be the continuation of 2:19–3:1.
The Book of Life (v. 3) is a common Jewish term meaning those who will be saved (Rev 20:12).
Fill your minds with whatever is truthful, holy, just, pure, lovely and noble (v. 8). Paul continuously repeats that it is not enough to avoid what is forbidden. Let us discover this free and open attitude of a believer who knows that God speaks to him in a thousand ways through others. How many examples before our eyes each day! What great, noble and true things there are in this world about which we speak negatively! Let us accept what is good, wherever we find it, even among unbelievers.
• 10. Paul thanks the Church of Philippi for their help. He, who is so jealous of his independence and anxious not to seem to take advantage of others under the pretext of religion, accepts what his real friends give him.
Should we speak of a “letter” from Paul? The letter to the Romans was already for the most part, a theme on faith and salvation. Here it is even more so: no news, no personal message for a particular community, but once more a lengthy dwelling on world salvation. It was, doubtless, destined for the Churches of the Ephesus area.
Why the world, what is happening to humanity? Every day the same question confronts us with more insistence, in the measure that recent years have seen mass movements on the part of very diverse peoples. Even those eager to dominate know they can no longer do so unless they speak for the majority. Where is salvation for humanity? What is its future? Paul answers from his prison in Rome. As we know from Acts (28:16 and 30), Paul was prisoner in Rome during the sixties. In this capital of the only world known to the West, he had ample leisure to evaluate the doctrines then circulating throughout the Roman Empire. They came from the Middle East where they were of special concern for the Christians in the region of Ephesus. Just as other religions claimed to offer a universal way of salvation, they offered Christ, as the only savior of the one humanity.
This letter to the Ephesians seems to have been written after the one to the Colossians. Paul again takes up and develops God’s plan that he must have understood through a revelation. The world was created for humankind to enable it to emerge as the New Human, one family in Christ. All will find themselves, each one in place, around a person capable of welcoming all, each in his own fullness.
Some people think the letter to the Ephesians is not Paul’s: how could he speak in an impersonal way to a community where he had worked for more than two years, approximately from 55 to 57 AD? As we have said, the letter must have been addressed, not only to the Christians of Ephesus, but more widely to the communities of the valley of Lycus: Hierapolis, Laodicea (Col 4:13 and 16) and Colossus which had been evangelized by Paul’s companions, in particular by Epaphras (Col 1:7).
Others think that the questions raised are more suited to a time later than Paul’s: like the letters of Titus and Timothy, this would be his only in a very broad sense. When one is aware of the very low level of Christian literature, immediately after the death of the apostles, it is difficult to accept that a letter of such theological certitude and of such doctrinal worth could have matured in someone other than Paul, even if he had left the writing of it to one of his disciples, Tychicus (Eph 6:21) or Timothy (Col 1:1).
• 1.3 This first page of the letter to the Ephesians is the best comprehensive expression of the Christian mystery in the Bible. It also serves to balance Paul’s great presentation in his letter to the Romans, which could appear to center God’s work in the tragedy of sinful humanity. The Letter to the Ephesians, like the Gospel of John, speaks of a re-creation of the world whereas the Letter to the Romans used more juridical terms: debt and reparation for sin.
Blessed be God! Usually Paul starts his letters with praise and thanksgiving. Here, however, the prayer is unusually lengthy: Paul gives thanks and at the same time proclaims God’s mysterious plan, which he understood through a revelation (3:3).
His mysterious design (v. 9). Actually Paul says: this mystery; this term designated at the time a decision or a secret doctrine. Here Paul speaks of the plan of God the Creator: a plan rooted in the mystery of the three divine Persons. We know that from God the Father proceed the Son and the Spirit, and from him they receive his very divinity, the three being only one God. Besides this communication and this effusion of life in God, before the creation of the world, God the Father wished to communicate his riches, beyond himself, to created beings. It is there that we have the beginning of all human history. God willed that sons and daughters (v. 5) multiply around his only Son and in him, be capable of receiving his Spirit and returning it to him. They would return to him at the end of history, forming one body (v. 10).
God chose us in Christ (v. 4). Note the expression in Christ on which we have commented in 1 Cor 1:4. Every creature comes from God through his Son in whom God contemplates his own riches, and on whom he pours his love. We are as God has loved us, and we are in him, in some way, from the beginning.
In creating us free, God knows that our freedom is fragile: it will be difficult for us to give him a filial response. How can we return to God, at the heart of his mystery, without dying to ourselves? All history must necessarily be a continual death and resurrection, for nations as for persons. So Divine Wisdom foresaw that the Son would be in our midst, with his cross and his resurrection, to show us the love of the Father who has called us (v. 5). And of course, wherever the Son is, the Spirit will be given (vv. 7 and 13).
In Christ we obtain freedom, sealed by his blood (v. 7). This does not mean that Christ shed his blood to make amends to his Father offended by sin, as if God were resentful as we often are, and as if his dignity were offended. Paul is referring to a biblical law: the emancipation of slaves used to be signed in blood (Ex 21:6).
Sealed with the Spirit (v. 13). The Jews were branded, “sealed” in the flesh by the circumcision ritual that showed they belonged to God. Christians, on the other hand, had received the Holy Spirit who acted in them: from the Spirit come faith, hope and love, the many forms of service, the gift of knowledge, miracles and healings. These gifts are the most obvious proof that they have become children of God. These gifts are only a foretaste of all the marvels that God has in store for us.
Paul distinguishes something like two insights: God’s plan in eternity (vv. 1-10) and its realization in time (vv. 11-14). The last two stanzas correspond to two stages in sacred history:
– We have been chosen and called (v. 11). Paul speaks for himself and in the name of the Jewish people chosen to be the people of God.
– You now… (v. 13). Here Paul means the pagan people like the Ephesians, whom he is addressing. And so, the fullness of time had come, that is to say the time of the Gospel proclaimed to the entire world so that everyone could receive the gifts of the Spirit.
This page clarifies some essential points of faith.
From eternity he destined us in love (v. 5). Here we recognize what Paul has affirmed in Romans 8:29-30. We cannot omit the word “predestination.” Many have used this word in the past in a different way from Paul’s. While Paul shows the Father’s decision to pour on created sons and daughters the infinite love which is lived within God, these preachers later spoke of a God who decides freely (and even capriciously) who will, and who will not, be saved. On this subject see “PREDESTINATION” in Romans 9.
It is impossible for us to understand how we can be free if we are known by God in eternity. It is not for that reason that we should share the doubts and anguish of those who believe they are subjected to a destiny or a fearsome “will of God.” In reality, we are “subject” to love and blessings (3) that await our response (see com. on Rom 9).
Paul does not speak of condemnation of anyone: he only affirms that God gives proof of a special love for those he calls to become members of Christ.
Many Christians are shocked when told they have received more than others, that in no other place have people been gifted with truth as they have, and they think: would it not be more honest and more humble to accept that all religions have their own truth? Yes, in a way all have some truth, but to doubt this unique grace that is to know God in Christ, is to deny the entire revelation of the Bible. See on this subject the note “The three sayings of God” in Genesis 12.
God chose us in Christ (v. 4). Many Christian authors have spoken as if, in the beginning, God created man without considering his possible fall and that Christ only came to save the lost sinner. This is not what Paul says here: from the beginning the coming of Christ and the gift of the Spirit together with the laws of life and the course of history are mysteriously linked with the order existing in God himself.
The Beloved (v. 6) is always the first for God and for us the desire to be “saved” cannot be the basis of our faith. It would be just as egoistic as practicing one’s religion in order to enjoy good health. The Son has revealed to us the Glory of the Father and how he returned to the Father. He wished to draw us out of our egoism, even our religious egoism (Jn 17 and Phil 2:9).
• 15. I have been told of your faith and your affection. Paul delights in the faith of the Ephesians but, above all, he prays they may have hope that must be the source of their dynamism. He describes the stages of hope this way: to know the Father; to appreciate the inheritance set apart for his saints; to understand the power of God to bring us to the realization of these hopes.
It is this hope that cracked open the immobility of ancient societies. Paul lived in a world where hope was considered an illness. Any project to transform humanity was taken as an illusion, and so the hopes of a nascent science were quickly smothered. Believers, on the contrary, lived the experience of a resurrection. In Christian countries appeared the certainty of a common destiny of humanity (the word “humanity” was non-existent at the time). People were beginning to be seen as persons in a truer way and it was this that set history in motion, never to return. How astonishing to see in our world so many Christians who believe, but who have very little hope: are they not the ones who carry the hope of the world?
Far above all power (v. 21). In Paul’s days, neither Jews nor Christians doubted that the world was governed by supernatural powers, “angels.” They called them: Rulers, Powers, Authorities, Dominion, and Paul was saying to them: all these Powers are inferior to Christ. In our days we express ourselves differently. Nevertheless, we see the universe subject to the laws of nature, to the forces of matter and of life. It is also subject to obscure forces: collective prejudices, vice and fanaticism. These ruled the world, preventing the emergence of humanity, until the coming of Christ: see Gal 3:23.
God has put all things under the feet of Christ (v. 22). This means the same as the words of our creed: “Jesus is seated at the right hand of God.” It means that in rising, Christ, the God-Human became the First in the universe. All things under his feet except humankind.
Paul adds: “He made him head of the Church.” Christ acts differently in two areas: in the world, where he is the invisible center in charge; in the Church, of which he is the head, where he can show the riches of his Spirit.
• 2.1 The path of humans without Christ leads to death.
We obeyed the urges of our human nature and consented to its desires (v. 3). There is no need to seek a clearer affirmation of what we call original sin. Paul does not speak of a fault committed before our personal sins, and in addition to the sins we are responsible for. It is a flaw easily seen in human condition and in all our acts; it is the liabilities of our life insofar as God has not taken us in hand.
The account of Genesis (chaps. 2–3) has placed in the past this “original” sin, as well as creation. It is a way of speaking proper to Hebrew culture. In fact both our creation by God (v. 10) and our revolt against him are a part of our daily reality.
He raised us to life with Christ (v. 6). Actually an authentic conversion is experienced as a resurrection. Paul is saying more: nothing can stop God’s merciful plan. He sees beyond time and has already raised us with Christ. We are seated with him in heaven, that is to say, assured of victory.
• 11. Another aspect of the human condition without Christ: death goes hand in hand with divisions. Before Christ, humanity was divided and people did not know our common Father. Since they were not mature enough for a quick unification in the true faith, God took that into account when he began to prepare for Christ’s coming. He chose a people and to avoid their being contaminated by the errors of the pagans, he separated them through a law that forbade their living together with other peoples (see Mk 7:14 and Acts 10:1). So there was in the Jerusalem Temple, far from the Sanctuary, a patio open to the pagans and another one, near the Sanctuary reserved for the Jews, and a wall between the two. There came a time when this dividing line became a sign of all the barriers that Christ was going to destroy.
He taught them to share life with non-Jews, forbidden until then. Christ, put on the cross by Jews and pagans, overcomes the hatred of all by a love that forgives and, once risen, gathers all people to himself.
Thus, just as the cross is made of two pieces, one vertical, towards heaven and the other, horizontal, towards the earth, so peace goes in two directions: towards God and towards others. He has made the two peoples one… and reconciled us both to God. These are the two sides of only one thing, because human violence is the other expression of our inability to meet God.
Christ united them, that is to say, whether we like it or not, the Gospel will destroy all differences between people. No matter how much segregation emerges in our societies, our laws and our institutions will collapse perhaps through violence, but better by being discredited through the sacrifices of their victims.
In one Spirit. It is only through the Spirit that each one has communion with others. Often, unity among people means one party, one ideology, one religion. Imposed order destroys both the one who accepts it and the one capable of silencing his adversaries.
Unity in the Church is not uniformity: the believers are not of one mold. It is not a question of having the same options regarding human problems; we have the right to differ in our view of faith provided that we accept all that the Credo contains. The Spirit enables each person to be true to himself and to continue “in communion” with the community. This is how the “new creature” is born: not as the work of politics or of any ideology, but as the work of God, since we are dealing with a new creation as Paul says.
You are of the household of God. In biblical language this means: to belong to God’s family. From there, Paul moves on to another image: you are the household, namely, the true temple of God. The community of believers form the temple, or better, is being transformed into the temple of God.
This imposing vision of the Church and our unity in the Church will perhaps astonish many Christians of today who are usually more aware of their responsibilities towards the world than towards our antiquated Church. Yet, of what Spirit shall we be bearers, and shall we do this work if we are not supported by a community? Solidarity with those who share our options and our culture cannot replace participation in the Christian community. There are probably many things in the Christian community we are not happy with. However, it would be a bad sign if we were unable to recognize in it the truth that is missing in our non-Christian friends, and without which we would lose our reason for living.
• 3.1 Prisoner of Christ. Paul writes this letter from his prison in Rome, but he does not say: prisoner “for the cause” of Christ. He is prisoner of Christ, for he cannot escape from Christ’s continual hold on him, nor from the apostolate that God has destined for him (1 Cor 9:16).
Paul emphasizes what he has meditated on in jail, what seems most new in the work of Christ: this is the “mystery,” or God’s plan calling all people to become a single body, without any racial distinctions. Jesus proclaimed this equality (Mt 20), but the early Christians needed several divine interventions before they were convinced (Acts 10).
The heavenly forces… (v. 10): see commentary on Gal 3:23 and Eph 1:21. We would not be distorting Paul’s thinking by saying that multinational directors, presidents and the great of this world are going to discover the true face of God, who manifests his glory in his poor and his saints (2 Thes 1:10), through the Church.
How fitting it would be to also express in poetry the wonderment of all nature, in discovering what God’s power has achieved after billions of years. Paul believes he is approaching the end, and we as well in this century where events move faster and faster, and we discover every day new signs of human awareness at a world level.
• 14. And now I kneel… without further delay. Paul moves from his presentation to prayer. Such is the way of the interior person (v. 16) who is not satisfied with thinking about God or talking about him as if he were an object. The Spirit preserves in him the awareness of this Presence that gives him life. As St. Teresa said: “I carry the heart of my God and the God of my heart everywhere.”
The Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth has received its name (v. 15). Our time has greatly devalued “the Father” with the obsession of an authority that would smother the personality of its children. This is not Paul’s way: he marvels before the One who alone is from all eternity. The Father is the source of the divine being, from him comes the order and the mystery of the divine persons. From him the universe draws its riches. Paul, speaking of the common destiny of all peoples, recalls that each one of them, every family, has received its name from the Father, which means its identity and its dignity.
Certainly we must recognize that the word Father no longer has the same meaning as in Paul’s time, when father was given a greater authority and respect. Once woman found her rightful place in the family and in society we are inclined to speak of “parents” rather than of “father.” Yet it is not by chance that God revealed himself in a culture—that of the Hebrews—where God was a masculine figure. Indeed they had already passed the primitive culture in which the woman was the center of family and the religion subsequently gave highest place to a female divinity. Among the neighboring peoples gods and goddesses went together. So God could have revealed to them with diverse faces, but this he did not do. Even if the Bible states that in God are all the riches of paternal and maternal love (Is 49:14), it keeps to the word Father. In so doing it insists on the liberty and initiative of God in all that he does: the universe and we ourselves have not come from God as a spontaneous “emanation”, as naturally born from the bosom of the all-powerful divinity. Everything was a lucid and creative decision.
Therefore, the family, with parental authority, is the basis of society, and fatherhood is also seen in the Church: the succession of bishops, with the authority of the hierarchy not dependent on people’s votes, is part of the divine order in the Church. A society which does not acknowledge fathers and which scorns marriage, as well as “spontaneous” churches, are devious structures.
The love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge (v. 19). Paul is certainly thinking of the love Christ has shown and continues to show him personally even in proportion to his trials. The knowledge and experience of this love surpasses all that could ever be imagined. We shall not find it through books and study or transcendental meditation. It will be freely given to us, on God’s initiative, on the way of love of which Christ made himself the model and the center.
• 4.1 Here, Paul returns to an important problem in communities where the style was still very free, we might say very charismatic, since the community counted on the unpredictable action of the Spirit through the charisms of different members. It is necessary that all in their own vocation work for the building up of the one body. Paul enthusiastically names all that we have in common through Christ and the action of the Spirit. It is not merely a temple that is constructed (see chapter 2:19-22); it is the Body of Christ, of the Perfect Man the mature one, in which Christ expresses his fullness.
Jesus of Nazareth lived humbly until his death only once, but having been made the Head of humanity through his resurrection, he suffers everywhere; he works in every field of human activity; gives his life in every possible way; he gathers in himself every form of love, and lives the whole diversity of human existence in the person of his members.
Then, we will no longer be like children. Paul suggests that the Ephesians are still children, at least from time to time, when they allow themselves to be influenced by some trend of opinion. He invites them to become a mature community, capable of being led by the truth, and of building itself up through love. We too should ask ourselves if we have really gone beyond the time when the “faithful” constantly waited for others to think for them, guide them and push them.
• 17. The old self and the new self. This image of Paul opposes two kinds of life that co-exist in every society and in a certain sense, in each of us. Conversion has not installed us in a state of perfection; even if we are at peace with God in a very real sense (Rom 5:1) unity is not in us. We experience temptation and struggle; our decisions both small and great lead us in one of two directions, either the old self hopelessly ruined and a slave of selfishness, or a person transfigured by love.
The self according to God. God created Man in his image, but the one who is truly this image is the risen Christ, conqueror of sin and of death. Here, as elsewhere in the Bible, Man is both Christ and humanity at the same time, and it is each one of us at our place in the “Body.” All that we admire in Christ is also for our benefit.
The white garment that adults put on at baptism denotes the change of life that they are beginning. This renewal may also take place after a retreat or when God unexpectedly makes us abandon a routine Christian life devoid of ambition. Then we put on Christ with rediscovered faith.
Paul immediately points out some of the moral requirements of this daily renewal: frankness, sobriety, cleanliness of language and imagination. Christian faith does not allow us to live in a carefree way, as did the oriental religions in the time of Paul. There much was said about renaissance and knowledge of mysteries, but nothing about the slavery of sex and the evil of social life.
Old self, new self correspond with other expressions of Paul: “according to the flesh” or “according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:5); “children of darkness” or “children of light” (Eph 5:8); “slaves of sin” or “persons free in Christ” (Gal 5:1).
Do not sadden the Holy Spirit. It is easy to understand this expression if we think of the sadness we feel each time we reject a good idea, a desire to do better: sadness of the “Holy Spirit” who suggested it in the first place, sadness of our own spirit, for it knows what we have lost.
• 5.1 Here are a few elements of a new way to live, as was already shown in the previous verses.
To imitate God (Rom 5:6-11) who loves everyone, the good and the bad (Mt 5:48). In a more tangible way we have a model in Christ, the Son of God, who gave himself out of love for us, as the way, the light and life.
Reject all that is shameful (v. 12) and that can only be done in the dark. It is true that much that was shameful has become normal today for many people: will it be so for a person who often seeks light and looks for it in the face in Christ? The witness of one Christian who lives in light (and still more of a community) is enough to condemn what has been taken as normal (v. 13).
To be more sensible and responsible in our lives. Because these days are evil (v. 16): that means that if we are unable to judge, choose, make a personal decision, the very current of daily events will keep us in mediocrity or will lead us to evil. Everything changes when a believer, a couple, a group “awakens” and takes daily or weekly time out to discover what is God’s will for them, in the time and circumstances in which they live.
Do not get drunk (v. 18)! We need stimulants; there is nothing wrong in experiencing a sort of trance to the point of feeling happy and relaxed when ice is broken and tongues untied. The Bible has praise for wine. It is impossible, however, to experience at the same time the ecstasy that comes from the spirit and that which is the effect of alcohol, drugs and dangerous diversions. We must constantly make choices.
Sing and celebrate the Lord in your heart, giving thanks (v. 19)! Experience the comfort of the Spirit and find it in a community gathering.
• 21. In the passage 5:21–6:9, Paul more or less repeats what he wrote in the letter to the Colossians (3:18–4:1). Here he has so much on his mind on the role of Christ as head of redeemed humanity that he will develop in an unexpected way the meaning of marriage.
So wives to their husbands (v. 22). It is not Paul who in the name of God demands that the wife be submissive: it is the society of the time that required it. And Paul says: “Let all kinds of submission become obedience to Christ.”
So, even if Paul’s way of speaking reflects the culture of his day with regard to marriage, there is no reason to scorn his teaching in support of feminism. There have been and there are different cultural models regarding the relationship between husband and wife. In our time the models differ in the economically developed countries from those of the Third World, for the middle and lower classes. What is still better, it is each couple that should find its own balance and the taking of initiatives according to the natural authority and the capacity of each one.
In any case, whether one partner makes a decision or follows it, neither will feel superior or inferior since the ideal for both is to “make oneself slave” (Mk 9:35). Paul says: The husband is the head but being the head is not the same as being the boss. Think of Christ: he has authority since he is the truth of God (which the husband is not to his wife); Paul however prefers to show him as the savior of his partner baptized humanity.
Paul points out what is essential in conjugal love when he recalls the word of Scripture: a man shall leave… (v. 31). He applies this word to the union of God with humanity in Christ, the Beloved (Mk 2:19). For marriage contains a mystery, that is a divine treasure which cannot be understood before the coming of Christ. When it is said that marriage is a “sacrament,” that does not mean primarily that there is a Church ceremony: it signifies that through marriage and the couples who live a life of love “according to Christ,” the mystery of the love of God is manifested among humankind. That is, in our midst, the sign of a covenant that God made with humanity, as the husband with his wife: a covenant of love, fidelity, fruitfulness.
He gave himself up for her. Christ finds us in our sins and he takes charge of us, even to the ultimate consequences: he gives his life to purify us. This is the way to show the main quality of Christian love, which is faithfulness. The self-gift of the spouse is permanent and from that moment on, each will do his best to save the other, that is, to help the other grow and be better. The perfect couple is not the one that lives without problems and accepts mediocrity, but the two who compel each other to give their best.
He washed her by the baptism in the Word (see James 1:18-21 and Jn 15:3). If the ritual of baptism is important, what is even more important is for us to welcome the Word of God that gives us life.
Many young people flee marriage, partly because they fear a risk (total fidelity is indeed a way of losing one’s life: Mk 8:35), partly because they consider that their love is their own business. Paul shows that Christ’s love for us, however personal it may be, never forgets his love for all those who make up his body. It is an example: married Christians are invited to have their place in the transformation of the world through the radiation of their love and their service to others.
• 6.1 Paul reminds children that God asks for obedience, and parents that they must not neglect their duty as educators (see commentary on Sirac 30:1-2). Parents have the difficult task of leading their children to true freedom, teaching them first to obey a law, to serve rather than be served, to share rather than demand. Later, they will show them how to follow the calls of the Spirit, well beyond what is considered good or bad all around them.
Paul reminds the slave of his nobility. Let him live without servility: this is the first step toward genuine liberation.
• 10. Paul has said what he had to say. What does his invitation to be strong mean, when he takes his examples from military life? Is it because he feels the Christians of Ephesus are not sufficiently strong? See verses 18-20: Paul invites them, without saying it, to compare their situation with his. Free or slaves, most of them were people of modest means of the cities near Ephesus. Subjected for a long time to the Roman Empire that imposed peace on them, they were free of serious problems. They were not rich but they were able to content themselves with little. Under a Mediterranean sky they had abundant light and a friendly, natural environment. They found the faith at a time when it cost them little; what would they do the day the Empire became an obstacle and when suddenly they would be classed a bad lot, responsible for all that was wrong?
This is why Paul warns them: peace is only provisional, for the demon is waiting for his hour (11 and 16). Paul asks them to persevere in prayer: the only effective arms against evil are those that Christ has left us: truth, faith, the word of God… and if they believe they have found salvation, let them exert themselves to evangelize others.
Who were the Galatians? This rather imprecise name can denote either the communities of Pisidia evangelized by Paul on his first mission (Acts 13:13–14:25), or those that Paul would have founded in the course of his second mission (Acts 16:5–18:23).
Paul writes because the community is in danger. Strange, he does not mention scandals, a conflict of authority as was the case in Corinth. There are indeed tensions and doubts: certain people overdo it and would like to restore Jewish practices. However it would seem neither the promoters of this return to the Law nor those who oppose it would expect such a strong warning from Paul. In fact he has seen through what they do: they want religious practices because they have not understood, or because they have forgotten that to be a Christian is not primarily to belong to a religion but to have faith.
The discovery of the Gospel had been for the Galatians a bath in freedom. Those who were Jews escaped religious practices that touched the whole of existence. Those who were Greek (and pagan) were liberated from a fatalist vision of the world and social prejudices. In both cases it was a complete change. Were they capable of following Paul when he spoke to them of his own experience, when he affirmed that Christ was able to fill our existence, that the Spirit directs us much better than religious obligations do?
At first, the Galatians lived what had been Paul’s life, but it was difficult for the community to maintain themselves along such a new line. Once the time of the first enthusiasm was over the great majority of these new Christians felt the need of rules and practices. They had faith in Christ but by no means could all of them be “spiritual” people.
There were persons who offered a response. They were, doubtless, Christians of Jewish origin, and they knew the benefits of a law. They aspired to assume the direction of the community, but chapter 6 of this letter shows that they also had ulterior motives: a return to Jewish practices opened all the doors of Jewish society. The Jewish communities flourishing throughout the Roman Empire were united and strengthened by common bonds; such relationship proved to be beneficial to them in many ways. Some Christians would prefer that kind of security rather than take the risk of embracing a new faith, and facing challenges and opposition which Christian communities had to face.
Paul’s response is severe; it will, perhaps, appear quite negative vis-a-vis religious practices: but it is the word of God. Relying on the rules and practices of a religion is to enclose oneself within a system, where the reward of one’s good deeds is constantly expected. Faith, on the contrary, is to give oneself to God and to his mystery, as awesome as the cross which is its symbol.
This is enough to understand that the letter to the Galatians speaks to the present when so many are searching for certitude. On the other hand in as much as the Church has to carry a number of Christians who have only a slight experience of life in the Spirit, it is always inclined to descend to their level and to become a religion again. So we must continually react and become conscious again of our identity: rediscover life by faith.
• 1.1 Paul reminds them and stresses the fact that he has been called and sent directly by God. Speaking of apostles he does not first think of Jesus’ Twelve who had been sent by him, but of others who had this title, sent by the Church and God, but in fact chosen by people.
• 6. I am surprised at how quickly you have abandoned God… and have gone to another gospel. There are many ways of preaching the Gospel and making of it a different one, no longer the Good News given by God through Jesus. Some of the Galatians who were of Jewish origin did not understand it. The style of life, in appearance more religious, that they were trying to impose on the community, was in fact a way of doubting Jesus, who alone is Savior.
The one we preached to you (v. 8). Astonishing words for us who are used to receiving different points of view: was Paul then infallible? He knew he was bearer, not only of the Word of God, but also of the “truth of the Gospel.” In fact the faith of the Church has always been the faith of the apostles: we believe in Jesus as the apostles believed, understood and taught. It is impossible to make this a subject of discussion without departing from the Christian faith. The doctrine received from the apostles and guarded by the Church is what we call Tradition.
• 11. The enemies of Paul criticize his authority saying that he was not an apostle like those Jesus had chosen. Paul will then briefly recall his itinerary: see on this subject Acts 9:1-31.
To reveal in me his Son (v. 16). Paul has not only “seen” Christ, he discovered him intimately present in himself. The risen Christ, Word and Wisdom of God, gave him in a unique illumination all the truth of faith (not all the truths which are only partial aspects which we may discover in different stages of life).
The case of Paul, whom Christ called directly, is special. Yet we see that Paul did not impose himself on the Church. Christ sent him to ask Ananias for baptism. Later he saw “Cephas” (the Aramean name for Peter), recognized head of the Church, and James, responsible for the Church of Jerusalem. This “union” or “communion” is indispensable for acting in the name of the Church.
Paul says: They acknowledged the graces God gave me (2:9): they recognized that the Spirit of God was in Paul’s work. The leaders in the Church do not impose a personal policy, but they try to recognize the call of the Holy Spirit.
• 2.1 This meeting in Jerusalem is related in Acts 15 and its commentary is found there.
When they became Christians, the Jews by race and religion continued to observe the Law of Moses in which the great commandments (to know God, not to murder…), the rituals of worship, and national customs are combined. When people of different races began to be converted to Christ, Paul demanded that they should not be forced to follow the Mosaic Law. Naturally, they had to respect their neighbor and were not to steal, but this emerges from the Gospel without having to impose the Mosaic Law.
So that the truth of the Gospel remain intact in you (v. 5). Because the Gospel frees us from all that limits our horizon. God is pure liberty and pure gift. May he be seen (it is not wrong) as the fabulous creator of an immense universe, or (what has more truth) as unique Love and Lover, Father of all who are able to return his love, he cannot tie us to a certain way of dressing nor enclose himself in our cooking and our times of prayer. Time has come for reciprocal kindness (Jn 1:17).
We are concerned, and rightly so, for keeping true faith. Here Paul shows that keeping the truth of the Gospel is not only a matter of formulas; our very way of life, free vis-à-vis of all that is not God, proclaims what the Gospel is.
It does not matter what they were before (v. 6). Peter, James and John had no titles, or money or culture. They may even have been despised by more learned believers. Paul does not pay attention to that; he looks upon them only as the leaders of the Church.
• 11. In the church, Paul feels it is his duty to reprimand the supreme leader, the first pope. Jesus promised Peter that his faith would not fail but he did not say that he would never make a mistake.
Jews did not eat with pagan non-Jews since, for them, it would have been something “impure,” a blemish. When some Jews were converted and entered the Church, if they had maintained this attitude toward their Christian brothers and sisters from another race, they would have kept an inadmissible division within a community renewed by Christ.
Peter (or Cephas: see Jn 1:42) knows that now all people are equal and he accepts for himself, not to take the Law into account. Yet he is afraid of what his friends and compatriots will think. He does not realize that, in order to please them, he is endangering the evangelization of those who are not Jewish. These people, in being seen as impure, are no longer at home in the Church. They are pressured to adopt the Jewish customs and with this, they will become alien to their own people. If they do not comply, they will be second-class citizens in the Church.
This problem is always with us, since often those who give the tone in the Christian community belong to a certain social level: others have no reason to do everything as they do. Each one in the Church comes from a particular milieu with its culture and language: we have the right to be shocked by what is foreign to our own culture but we must bear many things we do not like. The Church has to be open to diverse peoples.
• 15. We are Jews… Paul develops here what his reply to Peter contained: when you welcomed Christian faith, you gave up any hope of being rewarded for fulfilling the commandments; you put instead all your trust in Jesus as a Savior. This challenge has made Christian faith very strong. If now, for fear of scandalizing the Jews you decline from eating with non-Jews, all will understand that you have gone too far and that in fact the Law is still valid.
If we do away with something and then restore it (v. 18). This is exactly what the Galatians are doing in their turn. Paul taught them to be free of the prejudices of their pagan religion just as of the practices of the Old Testament. Now without these practices they feel naked: was faith in Christ sufficient when all around them each one had religion and practices? It was not pleasant to be circumcised, but at least, it gave you an identity.
We have here a summary of what Paul will develop four years later in chapters 2–8 in his letter to the Romans. We must not let the defense of Christian freedom, something that was so new and had not finished cracking cultural and social molds, hide from us what Paul would most like to transmit: “Christ lives in me.” Paul is not a theoretician; what makes him write today and tomorrow urges him to cross seas and traverse mountains is a passionate love of Jesus-God. It would need audacity to comment on this dwelling of Christ in those he loves and who love him. It has taken nothing less than this love without reserve, to bring about the greatest achievement of Christian faith and yet the least noticed: pardon and humility among others: with Christ I am crucified.
• 3.1 A good number of these Galatians are of Jewish origin, the others already have some notion of the Old Testament given that it is read in Church meetings (the New Testament does not yet exist). Paul then will recall first their own experience in baptism, when they received the Spirit; he will later interpret this experience in reading the Old Testament.
You begin with the Spirit and end up with the flesh (v. 3). This phrase has a double meaning. First the Galatians experienced the working of the Holy Spirit and his miracles and now they want to receive circumcision in the flesh. In another sense, they started with the truth of God that was in Jesus: that is “the spirit.” Now they go back to Jewish observances which, though they come from God, many times remained, as any religious practice, at a human level: the flesh.
Those who disturbed the Galatians said: you belong to Christ, but Christ is a descendant of Abraham and a Jew. Then follow Abraham and do as the Jews do: and so, along with Christ, you will be children of Abraham. Paul reports that one is not a son of Abraham or a son of God by race: this is a point that he develops more in Romans 4.
Let us not think that such prejudices have disappeared. There are some who think they are Catholics because they have been baptized at birth: they forget that without faith, baptism is meaningless.
Righteousness or justification (3:8). Like in Romans Paul will use this word abundantly. It means that through faith we are set right with God and our self is re-ordered so as to enter his ways.
• 15. We know that, in the Bible, Testament and Covenant mean the same: the Old Testament is the first covenant of God with humankind. Here Paul compares God with someone making a testament.
First God made a solemn covenant with Abraham. He did not demand anything of him, but made a promise to him. All that God expected of Abraham’s children in order to save them was that they would trust him. After such an important initiative from God, the Law which the Lord gave to Moses later did not really change the situation. Therefore, Paul says, most of the Jews are wrong when they are so concerned about observing the Law and so little concerned about opening their hearts.
• 19. In the preceding paragraph Paul began to show that there were different stages in faith history. The Jews already saw a progression in the revelation of God: they spoke of successive covenants of God with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses. For them the progress was that God had given a more complete law and that his choice was narrowing to the point of concentrating all his promises on the small Jewish community. Paul, as we have seen, shows that progress is elsewhere: God has replaced a religion where faith was, in fact, obedience to a law, by faith which is gift of self to God, as response to God, person to person.
Here Paul says more: there is a pedagogy of God in this change. “The Law led us to the school” (3:24): let us look at the word “pedagogy”: in Greek it signifies “take the child to school.” At this time the children of well-to-do families were entrusted to a servant called “pedagogue” who took the child to school but did not teach. Here Paul says: the Law was the servant, while Christ is the master.
Why then the Law? Paul will raise the question in Rom 3:1; 5:20; 7:7. He gives here his response in 4:1. He points out the negative character of the Law that constantly denounces and condemns: The Law closed out every viewpoint other than that of sin (v. 22). It is good that for a time God obliges us to keep our eyes fixed on our sins, our infidelity and ingratitude towards him, but he is much more concerned in making us grow, consequently becoming able to deal with him, person to person. Some will say: “This simplicity with God, we shall have up there.” That, however, is not what God wishes. He wants his kingdom to be among us now.
The Law was the means of leading the Jewish people to a better understanding of human hard-heartedness in relation to God, and giving them a sense of sin. It served as an education of a people during a certain time.
With this we can understand verse 19: with Moses as their mediator. Paul does not consider the Law something divine and eternal, dictated by God himself. He thinks that God let the angels in charge of diverse historical forces decide together on this temporary arrangement, so that the law would fit a particular time and circumstance; then Moses had to reconcile their diverse demands. The same thought is expressed in 4:3. In short, the Old Testament already contains the divine truth, but it has come down to us through mediators who adapted it to their ways and obscured it.
For each of us, it is necessary to have been submitted to a law, to have learned to obey without discussion during our early years. This first formation is irreplaceable; later we shall know how to obey our conscience without confusing it with our caprices. It was the same for God’s people as a whole: the Law led them to the freedom of the Gospel (5:1). So, if Christ has already taught us, why return to Jewish practice?
• 4.1 As long as the heir of the host is a child. God made people to be free, holy, strong, in the image of Christ. No one is born as an adult; she must be a child first. Similarly humankind has to go through infancy. There was a primitive society, a naive science, a simple culture, a transitional religion. People remained “among slaves”; Paul saw them dependent on “created forces” that govern the world. For him the laws of nature as well as the rules and prejudices of primitive peoples are one with the invisible forces of good and evil (the word we translated as “created forces” also means “directing principle”: Eph 3:10; Col 2:15). Now, through Christ, the great door of freedom opens to us. First, Christ liberates people from religious superstitions and from the prejudices that prevent them from knowing the Father and from becoming his children.
He came born of woman and subject to the Law (v. 4). Christ saves humans because he is a man. Christ came first as the savior of the Jewish people and, to save them, he became one of them. He received his whole formation from the Law, namely, from the people and religion of the Old Testament. This Law was highly positive, but, as time passed, we had to be redeemed from the yoke of this Law to receive the fullness of divine truth.
We must see in this obedience of Christ born of woman and subject to the Law a fundamental disposition of the plan of salvation: God saves us by becoming one of us. The same is now true of the Church, which saves people rather than giving to them or “being interested in them.” The Church cannot bring them a permanent and transforming salvation if it does not share in their very condition.
This is the reason why the Lord wants Third World churches to bear the cross of the people of their continents: their marginalization, their sufferings and humiliations, in order to lead them to authentic salvation. When there are only middle-class churches following occidental or Roman patterns, these churches are unfaithful to their mission.
You want to be enslaved again? (v. 9). We soon tire of liberty, for it always complicates life. It would be much simpler to be told: “This is right, that is a sin.”
Paul said to the Galatians: “You belong to Christ, be guided by his Spirit.” Did they really want to be more pliable with their ready-made judgments? Were they ready to restrain that kind of pride that accompanies the eagerness for social recognition? If not, there would be no Spirit. The Galatians actually preferred to walk along familiar paths. They kept certain festive days and obeyed the rules just like the Jews; they were, in fact, quite content with a mediocre faith and a love that risks nothing.
• 12. Here, a few more personal lines. These Galatians loved Paul, and Paul loved them, but some aspect of faith escaped them. That is why they felt more at ease with others than with Paul, those who had a sense of “religion” and did not fail to profit from it.
• 21. In the history of his ancestor Abraham, Paul discovers an image of conflict opposing the true believer to the “Judaizers”—those who say one is saved by religiously observing practices.
At the start of sacred history is Abraham’s faith and the promise God made to him. It should be noted that this promise was not to be inherited in the same way as family goods, which had to be distributed among all the children. The promise will not come to Ishmael born like any other. (Paul says: “born according to the flesh”.) Rather, what God promised was only destined for the son of promise, Isaac: the one who was born through a miraculous and free intervention of God. Thus, from the very beginning of the Bible, we see that we do not come to faith and to God’s inheritance because we have a right to them, but through grace.
By clinging to their religious observances, the Jews were forgetting that they were, above all, the people of the promise. Chosen by God in preference to other people, their mission was to announce that there are promises of God for all nations. They were wrong in thinking thus: since we are chosen by God, let everyone do what we do and observe our practices. Instead they should have shared their hopes with others; they should have taught others to believe in God’s promise and not put their trust in particular religious practices.
Hagar, the slave woman who gave birth to Ishmael, ancestor of the Arabs, becomes the image of the people of the first covenant, people who received the Law on Mount Sinai in Arabia: they did not achieve true freedom and held the earthly Jerusalem as their capital.
While Sarah, the free woman, with her son Isaac, born according to the divine promise, represents God’s new covenant with those who believe in his promises. These are the free people, the Christians who wait for the heavenly Jerusalem.
Ishmael persecuted Isaac and Abraham sent him away. This means: the inadequately converted Jews are disturbing the Galatians; the Church, then, has to send them away.
• 5.1 Paul does not want converts to be circumcised. See how firmly he speaks to them: this would be a falling away from grace. Why? It was not a sin, Paul could well have tolerated without encouraging it.
Yet for Paul, you cannot preach the Gospel in an authentic way without taking stances that upset others. Again “the truth of the Gospel” is not only in the formulas of dogma: it is also in the stand you take, showing how free we are. If the Gospel is liberation, the apostles should adopt, at least on certain points, positions that disturb and shock. Jesus gave an example in violating the holiest of laws, that of the Sabbath, when it was not necessary to do so.
Such is the necessary scandal in all Christian behavior, which will never be as scandalous as was Jesus’ death on a cross (see 1 Cor 1:17). To save people means, somehow, making them discover who they are before God, and then bringing them to confront the forces that have kept them subjugated and alienated. This is why Paul was so opposed to perpetuating Jewish practices. Following Paul, we could ask in our days: Who are those who give in to prejudices and alienating powers, and who are the persecuted (5:11; 6:12)? Oftentimes, the Gospel is lived more authentically in Christian groups that are politically aware and active than in groups that limit themselves to liturgical practices.
• 13. If the Galatians are looking out for religious practices it is partly because they feel that faith should be expressed in a concrete way. Here Paul tells them: if you are anxious for putting faith into life, look at your community life. We, like them, are terribly accustomed to a double life: on one hand we proclaim we are children of God, we speak of grace, of spiritual life, while we are terribly ordinary, often very dishonest and malicious in daily life or with our rivals within the Church, especially if we have a title to defend.
Paul rightly gives a short list of the works of the flesh and another of the fruits of the Spirit. He places side by side idolatry and the ambitions or divisions so common in religious and practicing groups. It is clear that for him flesh and spirit are not the same as “body” and “soul”: the pettiness and attachment to our privileges are also sins of the flesh, that is of people alien to the Spirit (see com. on 3:3 and Rom 7:16).
• 6.11 At the moment of saying good-bye, once again Paul speaks about the crisis in the community. It is not only a problem of religious practice; there are also certain persons anxious to put up a good show in life (see Phil 3:2-11).
Those who persuade you to be circumcised: they are members of the community. They want to be different from “ordinary” Christians, forming an apparently more serious group, more religious because of being circumcised. Actually, this rite would assure them a welcome to Jewish homes—a good way of making professional contacts. Already at that time the links uniting Jewish communities established in all the cities of the Roman Empire increased their possibilities. For those middle class people it was advantageous to rely on them. Paul instead chose to break up and he was to be persecuted from city to city till the moment in which his adversaries would have him condemned by imperial justice.
The world has been crucified to me. Paul has chosen a different way. He goes on his way, without a home, persecuted by some, despised by others, feared by those who cannot stand his example of complete abnegation, nor his mingling with so many people whom they consider inferior. This is to follow Christ to the cross.
1 1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy, our brother, to the church of God in Corinth, and to all the saints in the whole of Achaia. 2 May you receive grace and peace from God our Father and from Christ Jesus, the Lord.
Blessed be God, the source of all comfort
• 3 Blessed be God, the Father of Christ Jesus, our Lord, the all-merciful Father and the God of all comfort! 4 He encourages us in all our trials, so that we may also encourage those in any trial, with the same comfort that we receive from God.
5 For whenever the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so, through Christ, a great comfort also overflows. 6 So, if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we receive comfort it is also for you. You may experience the same comfort when you come to endure the same sufferings we endure. 7 Our hope for you is most firm; just as you share in our sufferings, so shall you also share in our consolation.
8 Brothers and sisters, we want you to know some of the trials we experienced in the province of Asia. We were crushed; it was too much; it was more than we could bear and we had already lost all hope of coming through alive. 9 We felt branded for death, but this happened that we might no longer rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He freed us from such a deadly peril and will continue to do so. We trust he will continue protecting us, 11 but you must help us with your prayers. When such a favor is obtained by the intercession of many, so will there be many to give thanks to God on our behalf.
The plans of Paul
• 12 There is something we are proud of: our conscience tells us that we have lived in this world with the openness and sincerity that comes from God. We have been guided, not by human motives, but by the grace of God, especially in relation to you. 13 There were no hidden intentions in my letter, but only what you can read and understand. 14 I trust that what you now only partly realize, you will come to understand fully, and so be proud of us, as we shall also be proud of you on the Day of the Lord Jesus.
15 With this assurance, I wanted to go and visit you first, and this would have been a double blessing for you. 16 And from there I thought of going to Macedonia and then, from Macedonia, of coming back to you, that you might send me on my way to Judea. 17 Have I planned this without thinking at all? Or do I change my decisions on the spur of the moment, so that I am between No and Yes?
18 God knows that our dealing with you is not Yes and No, 19 just as the Son of God, Christ Jesus, whom we—Silvanus, Timothy and I—preach to you, was not Yes and No; with him it was simply Yes. 20 In him all the promises of God have come to be a Yes, and we also say in his name: Amen! giving thanks to God. 21 God himself has anointed us and strengthens us with you to serve Christ; 22 he has marked us with his own seal in a first outpouring of the Spirit in our hearts.
Paul refers to a scandal
• 23 God knows, and I swear to you by my own life, that if I did not return to Corinth, it was because I wanted to spare you. 24 I do not wish to lord it over your faith, but to contribute to your happiness; for regarding faith, you already stand firm.