Although Paul never actually ministered in the city of Colossae, a small town in the province of Asia, about 100 miles east of Ephesus, it appears this church was an outgrowth of his three-year ministry in Ephesus. Epaphras, probably a convert of Paul, appears to be the church’s founder and leader (Col. 1:7, 8; 4:12-13). Comparing Philemon 2 with Colossians 4:17, it appears the church met in the home of Philemon. Many Bible scholars believe Paul wrote this book during his first imprisonment in Rome and that the letter was delivered by Tychicus along with the letter to the church at Ephesus (see Handout on Prison Epistles given with the book of Ephesus). Apparently at the same time Tychicus brought with him Onesimus to restore him to his master, Philemon, and he also carried with him Paul’s note to Philemon beseeching him to take his slave back “as a man and as a Christian”. (Philemon 15-16).
Paul was apparently writing his letter to deal with false teaching which was threatening the church at Colossae (2:8-9). The false teaching appears to have been an early from of Gnosticism. Gnosticism (from gnosis in Greek which meant knowledge) taught that matter was evil. Therefore, God could not have created the world. Rather, God (the original source) created an angel who in turn created another angel, who created yet a third angel, etc. The last of these angels created the world as we know it today. It was impossible for Jesus (or anyone) to be both fully God and fully man because of the evil of material things. Therefore, Jesus was only one of the many semi-divine beings that bridged the gap between God and the world. Because He was not God, Jesus did not have the authority to ability to meet their needs.
Since the material world was evil, there evolved two different philosophies regarding how man should live. The first said that if matter is evil, then the body is evil. Therefore, man should avoid all joys of life and abuse the body for the spirit’s sake. This point of view was called Stoicism. The other philosophy said that since the body was evil, it is ultimately destined for the dust. It does not really what we do with it. Therefore, if it felt good, do it. This led to a belief system called Epicureanism.
However, the heresy was not just a simply form of Gnosticism. It appears that it was a blending of pagan and Judaic speculation which results in a syncretism. A study of its characteristics can be beneficial to the church today as we see many of these same characteristics in beliefs and philosophies being taught today.
- It stressed philosophy (Col. 2:8).
- It stressed “enlightenment” with a strong emphasis on wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3); philosophy and tradition (Col 2:8); delving into the unknown and using one’s fleshly mind (Col 2:18) and worshipping man’s own ability and will to control and discipline himself (Col. 2:23).
- It stressed soul over body (Col. 2:16, 20-23). Again, this brings about two different approaches – both are wrong. One says – The way to release or take care of the soul is to discipline and control the body. This involves into all kinds of legalism – “Touch not, taste not, handle not.” (Col. 2:21). The other says – One can do what he wishes with his body as long as he takes care of his soul by participating in religious worship and rituals.
- It stressed ritual and tradition. Special foods and special days (Col. 2:16, 22).
- It stressed other mediators between God and man: elementary spirits (Col. 2:8, 20) and angels (Col. 2:18).
It appears Epaphras was not able to deal properly with this false teaching and so he made the dangerous and wearisome journey of 1000 miles from Colossae to Rome to speak to Paul. While in Rome, he was evidently also imprisoned (Philemon 23) probably because of his bold preaching. Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians in response to the report from Epaphras and sent it by one of his trusted workers. Tychicus (Col. 4:7; Acts 20:4; Eph. 6:21; 2 Tim. 4:12; Titus 3:12).
To counter the error, Paul underscored the deity of Christ and His death on the cross for our sin. No other New Testament book sets forth more fully or defends the universal lordship of Christ more thoroughly than Colossians. The book sets forth Christ as supreme Lord. The first two chapters present and defend this truth. The last two chapters unfold practical implications of this truth.
This was important because the false teaching attacked Jesus Christ at every point.
- It attacked His deity. If the world is material and man’s body is evil, then God would never take upon Himself human flesh. God would become evil by taking man’s flesh upon Himself. Col. 1:15 – “He is the image of the invisible God.”
- It attacked His creative power and His role in creation. If the world is evil, then God could not have been the creator. Col. 1:16 – “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth. . .All things were created through Him and for Him.”
- It attacked the humanity of Jesus. If He was really God, then He could not have been flesh since flesh is evil. Col. 2:9 – “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (in bodily form).”
- It attached His redemptive power. Something more than Christ was needed to defeat the powers that oppose man – Angels, philosophy, human effort. Col. 1:21-22 – “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind. . .in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, blameless, and above reproach in His sight.”
Paul showed three primary ways in which Christ is Lord:
- Christ is Lord over all creation. His creative authority includes both the material and the spiritual universe (1:16). Because of this, He alone is to be worshipped. No other being – man or angel – deserves the worship that is His alone. This also means there is no reason to fear demonic forces or seek superstitiously for protection from them.
- Christ is Lord over the church. He is the Creator and Savior of the church (1:18). He is the very life source of the church. He is over all, and in Him the church is made perfect (2:10).
- Christ is Lord of salvation. He is the one who has made Christians of all mankind (3:11). Only by associating with Him in His death, burial and resurrection can anyone hope to find eternal life Col. 2:11-14).
Colossians may be compared to other writings of Paul:
In Romans we are justified in Christ.
In 1 Corinthians we are enriched in Christ.
In 2 Corinthians we are comforted in Christ.
In Galatians we are free in Christ.
In Ephesians we are quickened in Christ.
In Philippians we are happy in Christ.
Then, we come to Colossians. This book gives us the glorious culmination of it all.
In Colossians we are complete in Christ.
This completely is achieved in four ways.
- Building downward. Col. 1:23 – “Grounded and steadfast. . .not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard.” This is the deeper life.
- Building upward. Col. 2:7 – “Rooted and built up in him and established (to make firm, secure, guarantee) in the faith.” This is the higher life.
- Building inward. Col. 3:3 – “for you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” This is the inner life.
- Building outward. Col. 4:5 – “Walk with wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time (the opportune time, appointed time, due time, proper time for action; this word for time, kairos describes kind, or quality, of time rather than quantity of time).” This is the outer life.
Colossians bears a close resemblance to Ephesians in language and subject matter. Over 70 of the 155 verses in Ephesians contain expression echoed in Colossians. In a sense, Colossians concludes that which Ephesians introduces. In Ephesians Paul emphasizes the fact that the church is a body. In Colossians he emphasizes the head of the body which is Christ.
Colossae, along with the towns of Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 4:13), lay beside the banks of the small river, Lycus, in the Roman province of Asia. Today that area is in west Turkey. In earlier days it had been a prosperous center of wool and weaving and was described in the fifth century B.C. as “a great city.” However, at the beginning of the Christian era its influence had greatly declined and a first-century geographer, Strabo, described it as “a small city.” It is now no more than a barren and uninhabited site. But because of the letter of Paul, it remains in the memory of the church.