Thousands of commentaries have been written about the Bible, and it’s easy to become confused because these resources are written to various audiences. Choosing the “best” will depend upon the kind of analysis you desire. Commentaries are often divided into three categories:
Devotional/Introductory–the primary focus is application of the Word and growing in Christ. Lots of “how to” questions are answered.
Pastoral/Intermediate–these commentaries also contain application but are more information oriented. Some go deep into the history or cultural background of the text, while others pay more attention to linguistics. Lots of “what does it mean” questions are answered. Useful for any Christ follower and especially helpful to those who teach.
Technical/Advanced–primary value is to teachers and advanced students. Some technical commentaries focus on textual criticism (the reliability of the text), while others address linguistics (the text itself). Lots of minutiae. These commentaries contain Greek text (sometimes transliterated, sometimes not) and require familiarity with Koine Greek to extract their full benefit, but even those with no knowledge of Greek will find these commentaries useful.
My recommendations identify which category each book falls into. Some commentaries overlap; when they do, both categories will be noted (e.g., Pastoral/Technical). The recommendations are listed in order of their helpfulness to Bible students, teachers, and pastors.
Colossians and Philemon
Editors of commentary sets often place these letters together because they were written at the same time and delivered by the same person to the same city (Philemon was a wealthy Christian in Colossae). Several excellent commentaries are available; below is my short list.
The best all-around commentary on Colossians and Philemon is by Douglas Moo in the Pillar New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2008). Pastoral. Extensive (46 pp.) introduction that admirably defends Pauline authorship and provides a great analysis of the Colossian heresy that prompted the letter. Includes a lengthy and helpful discussion about the Christ hymn. Moo meticulously presents the letter’s rhetorical and literary structure and provides masterful exegesis and analysis of every verse. Colossians is allotted 218 pages, and Philemon gets 85 pages, with the remainder devoted to the introduction and detailed indexes of authors, subjects, scripture, and extra-biblical literature. Greek words are transliterated, and even beginning students will find this commentary quite accessible. My only quibble is that I wish Moo would have provided his own translation instead of using the TNIV, but that is a minor complaint. This is a book you will want nearby when studying these letters.
The best technical analysis of Colossians and Philemon is by Peter O’Brien in the Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1982), but it was withdrawn from publication by the publisher and is only available on the secondary market. Language students will want to check out James Dunn’s NIGTC and F.F. Bruce’s NICNT, but, outside of O’Brien, the only technical commentary I can recommend wholeheartedly is by David Pao in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2016). Technical/Pastoral. The ZECNT series is an intermediate level resource designed to provide useful but not overly technical help with the Greek text, and the layout reflects that. Each multi-verse section includes info on literary context, the passage’s main idea, a fresh translation of the text in a graphical layout (one of my favorite parts), a look at structure and literary form, an exegetical outline, and theology in application. There are also several excellent excursuses (e.g., vice and virtue lists, household codes). Greek words/phrases are not transliterated, but an English translation always accompanies the Greek text. Very accessible and a good companion to Moo.
The best introductory commentary is by David Garland in the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 1995). Pastoral/Devotional. Garland’s commentaries on First and Second Corinthians (BECNT and NAC) are my favorites for those letters, and his work on Colossians and Philemon is as good, albeit with a different focus. I miss the technical helps Garland provided for the Corinthian letters, but that is outside the scope of the NIVAC series. Where Garland shines is in helping us understand the text in light of today’s world. A good example is his excursus in Philemon on slavery. Anyone who wants to better understand Colossians and Philemon will appreciate this resource. Pastors and teachers can combine Garland with Moo and Pao to create lessons that will be both theologically deep and easy to understand/apply.
Did I miss a commentary you are interested in? Drop me a line. These are not the only resources I am familiar with–these are just my favorites.
Next: Recommended commentaries on the 1 & 2 Thessalonians.