The epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon were written by Paul during the early part of his Roman imprisonment. Paul apparently wrote to the Colossian church because he had heard that false teachers had come to the city and were spreading erroneous doctrine in the young church. He writes to them in order to refute these errors and to encourage them to stand fast in the truth. The nature of the false doctrine is a matter of some controversy, but it seems most likely to have been a syncretistic blend of certain Jewish and Hellenistic beliefs. The epistle to Philemon is the shortest and most personal of Paul’s epistles. It contains a plea on behalf of the slave Onesimus. Commentators discuss the letters together because they were almost certainly sent at the same time by the same courier (ca. AD 60–61). There are a number of helpful commentaries on Colossians and Philemon, and the following are five of the best.
1. G.K. Beale — Colossians and Philemon (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 2019).
G.K. Beale is one of the most important Reformed theologians writing today. Everything he has written from his brilliant study on the theology of the temple to his magisterial commentary on Revelation has been outstanding. This new commentary on Colossians and Philemon is no exception. It should be the go-to commentary of first choice in every pastor and teacher’s library.
2. Douglas J. Moo — The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2008).
Douglas Moo’s commentary on Romans is a modern classic. His commentaries on other books of the New Testament are all outstanding. I was very excited, therefore, to see this new commentary on Colossians and Philemon when it was first published. Having worked with it now for over a decade, I can enthusiastically recommend it.
3. David W. Pao — Colossians & Philemon (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 2012).
The Zondervan Exegetical Commentaries are written at about the same level as the Baker Exegetical Commentaries. Readers with a working knowledge of Greek will derive the most benefit, but such knowledge is not required. Pao’s contribution to this series is a very good commentary. He is thoughtful and careful, and pastors and teachers will find this to be a most useful work.
4. F. F. Bruce — The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (New International Commentary on the New Testament, 1984).
There are certain authors whose work serious students of Scripture should go out of their way to read. F.F. Bruce is one of those authors. Before his death, he wrote on an astounding variety of subjects, covering all aspects of biblical studies. Among these works were a number of commentaries on various books of the Bible. His commentary on Colossians and Philemon is a perfect example of his unique combination of scholarship and readability.
5. David E. Garland — Colossians/Philemon (NIV Application Commentary, 1998).
The NIV Application Commentary series is a mixed bag. Some are better than others. David Garland’s commentary on Colossians and Philemon is one of the commentaries in this series that should not be passed by. Garland offers great insight into the text and its contemporary application. It should be of great help to busy pastors.
There are a number of other notable commentaries on the books of Colossians and Philemon including those by Ben Witherington, Anthony Thiselton, Richard Melick, John Woodhouse, and Dick Lucas. The “commentary” by Murray Harris is for those who want to dive deeper into the Greek text. When David Briones’ commentary on Philemon is published, it will be a must-read as well.
Helpful Related Works
One of the perennial questions related to Paul’s epistle to Philemon is the that of slavery in the ancient world. One helpful work on this issue is Murray Harris’ Slave of Christ.
This article is part of the Top 5 Commentaries collection.