Introduction & Overview
The Bible is a collection of sixty-six separate books, written over a period of approximately 1500 years by over 40 different authors. The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Colossians is one of the twenty-three books comprising the New Testament, which was written in the 60 years or so following the death and resurrection of Christ. If we are going to read and understand this book, or any other book of the Bible, we must have some understanding of the historical, religious, and cultural contexts in which each was written. The following is a brief introduction to the book we most often call “Colossians.” All Scripture references are to passages and verses in Colossians, unless otherwise indicated. - Russ
Author – the apostle Paul.
Date – Paul’s first Roman imprisonment, 60-62 AD.
Audience – The letter was written to the “brothers in Christ at Colossae” (1:2). It is unknown whether Paul had ever personally visited Colossae, and he takes no credit in the letter for having established the church there; in fact, he credits a man named Epaphras for teaching the Colossians the gospel (1:7). Epaphras had most likely visited Paul in Ephesus where Paul shared the good news of Jesus Christ daily, and where all “Asia heard the word of the Lord.” (Acts 19:10) “Asia” refers to the western province of ancient Asia Minor (present day Turkey), in which both Ephesus and Colossae were located (and where Ephesus is still located.)
To add a bit more detail, Paul had for three years in the mid-50’s AD lived in the coastal city of Ephesus, the third largest city in the Roman Empire. While living there, he met and spoke daily with untold numbers of visitors and residents alike, ministering the truth of God and preaching the Gospel of Christ. Undoubtedly, some of these people (including Epaphras) were visitors from nearby Colossae, who had come to do business, to visit friends or relatives, or to worship at the great temple of the goddess Artemis. A fellowship of Christian converts certainly formed in Colossae during this time, and they would have known and held Paul in high esteem even if he never set foot in Colossae.
Given the high regard and love these early Colossian believers would have had for the Apostle Paul, they also would have gratefully and respectfully received any letter from him, including the twelfth book of the New Testament, the one we call “Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.”
Circumstances & Cultural Background
The City – Colossae was situated approximately 120 miles east of Ephesus, just south of the cities of Hierapolis and Laodicea, the latter being one of the seven cities of the Revelation. Of the three cities, Colossae was the smallest and least prominent. Colossae was nevertheless located on the main trade route through the region, and as such was subject to constant influences of cultures, religions and philosophies.
Shortly after Paul wrote his letter to the believers in Colossae, the Lycos valley was rocked by a major earthquake which may have caused Colossae to become nearly or completely unpopulated. Thus, while it is unlikely that Paul’s letter had an enduring influence on the Colossian church, it was certainly circulated, copied, and distributed among the believers in that region of Asia Minor, and eventually beyond that region to all of the Christian churches, and finally to us.
The Church – As in most of the Mediterranean world in the first century, Christians met nearly exclusively in house churches, gathering in homes for worship, teaching and fellowship. Here were at least two different house churches we know of that were either in or near Colossae – one was the home of a woman named Nympha (4:15) and the other was in the home of a man named Philemon (Philemon 2).
Circumstances & Motivation of Paul’s Writing – The thrust behind Paul’s writing to the Colossians, not surprisingly, was to correct false and heretical teachings. The reason this is unsurprising is because it was a frequent and passionate activity of the apostle.
The precise identity and nature of the Colossian false teaching is not directly identified and described in Paul’s letter, but its characteristics include (1) a low view of Christ as to His divinity and/or His role in redemption (1:15-20); (2) a philosophical mindset or worldview that was outside of the scope of the gospel and therefore “antichrist” (2:8); (3) legalistic observance of laws and traditions (2:8,11,16,21; 3:11); (4) worship of spiritual entities such as angels and spirits (2:8,18); (5) despising and badly treating one’s physical body (2:20-23); and (6) special insight and revelation that shifted the source of truth from Apostolic witness to the individual heretic (2:18-19).
For anyone desiring to dive a bit deeper into possible modern day applications of Paul’s doctrinal corrections, a good place to start is by considering all six of the above listed aspects of the Colossian heresy, comparing each to the kinds of beliefs and teachings found all too commonly in modern 21st century churches.
It is unclear from the letter precisely and exactly what the false teachings were. It is possible that in addition to any specific false teachers and teachings, Paul may have addressed common or popular ideas to beware of. It is also possible that the Colossian heresy was a mixture of an extreme form of Judaism and an early stage of Gnosticism. Most theories as to the exact nature of the heresy invoke one of these or the other, or both.
It is clear from the text, however, just as in other letters written by Paul, that he strove to reinforce correct and true doctrines by warding off heresies and heretics. It is also quite clear that the Colossian believers were in tune with everything Paul wrote about. There were no mysteries in it for them.
Pluralism & Syncretism – Like Ephesus and the cities of the surrounding region, Colossae was characterized by the worship of various deities and by belief in various gods, goddesses and spirits. This religious pluralism extended to the worship and veneration of Greek and Roman deities, and it was common for members of various cults to borrow freely from one another in fashioning their own beliefs and religious practices. Thus, Paul was writing to believers in an environment which would not only have been commonly influenced by false teaching of various kinds, but he was writing to believers who would have tended to be naturally and culturally receptive to such ideas.
“Me, Myself and I-ism” – Colossae was just over 100 miles from the large, influential port city of Ephesus. Paul, while ministering for several years in Ephesus, may well have visited Colossae and at the very least would have preached the Gospel to visitors (and pilgrims) from Colossae. It therefore seems apparent that although Colossae was much smaller and less influential and cosmopolitan than Ephesus, the larger city would have exerted a good deal of cultural influence on the people of Colossae.
In a highly “Romanized” and pluralistic environment of religious diversity, such as existed in Ephesus and such as exists in America today, there is a curious acceptance of all sorts of beliefs and deities (or denial of any deity), alongside a highly critical, judgmental attitude towards those who claim to have “the whole truth,” or who claim their particular god to be the one and only god above all others. In other words, there exists side-by-side a far ranging tolerance and a seething intolerance, depending upon whether another person or group’s belief makes exclusive claims, and depending upon how convicting those claims may seem to others.
In such a syncretistic environment, individuals have plenty of room to “pick and choose” their religious affiliations, and citizens grow up counting this freedom as an inherent right of the individual which must not be tread upon. As such, in the case of Ephesus (and presumably Colossae), as long as one did not publicly deny or insult the Ephesian region’s goddess Artemis, as long as one was willing to pay worshipful homage to the Roman Emperor, and as long as one did not claim their particular persuasion to be one true, exclusive, complete and correct one, anything went.
In other words, the culture was ripe for “me, myself and I-ism” – that is, for highly individualized and personalized, “seeker flexible,” syncretistic, pagan and (as we now call it) “New Age” religious beliefs and practices. To overlay “new teachings” onto the Gospel of Christ was therefore not out of character for those who were steeped in the Greco-Roman culture. Small groups of adherents to various religions were adept at blending and melding with others, borrowing and dealing away whatever aspects of their “faith” seemed good to them at the time.
It is small wonder, then, that new Christian converts came equipped with a “me, myself and I” outlook which tended to minimize the absolute deity, supremacy and sufficiency of Christ, and rather quickly began to reduce Him to just one more way of meeting their individual “felt needs.” It is also little wonder that new believers were all too ready to add this and subtract that from the Gospel of Christ, from His true Person, and from the knowledge of the true God.
This resulting degeneration in the quality and purity of their Christian faith, and the receptivity it caused to cheap teaching of false doctrines by religious parasites, are behind Paul’s correcting emphases on the supremacy and magnificence of Christ and what He had done for the believers in saving them from sin, death and hell, as compared to far lesser favors which might have been sought from the Greco-Roman pantheon.
Genre – This is an epistle, or letter.
Central Theme and Purpose – In correcting false teaching that would have had the effect of diminishing the Colossian believers’ faith in the authority and redemptive power of Christ, Paul established and developed the reverberating theme of the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ as preeminent in all things (1:18). He is the one by whom the Father reconciles to Himself “all things” in heaven and on earth. (1:20).
Complete in Him – Paul emphasizes that believers in Christ are complete in Christ, in whom the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily (2:9-10). They are encouraged in this knowledge to avoid heretical, worldly, vain, deceitful philosophy (2:8) such as that which was being advanced in opposition to the true gospel. This is not a warning against philosophy per se, but against philosophy marked by “empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” The Colossian believers are encouraged to participate fully with Christ in His death, resurrection and fullness.
Christ’s Supremacy Brings Rules for Living – In the purview of the supreme authority and preeminence of Christ, Paul develops the idea that God’s people must submit to Him in every aspect of life, such as abandoning old practices (3:5-11), living in love, unity and forgiveness (3:12-14), pursuing mutual encouragement and worship as a community of faith (3:15-17), and exercising faithfulness and compassion in families (3:18-4:1).
Principles & Practices – Paul followed his usual pattern in first laying out principles (indicatives) in chapter 1 through 3:4, following by instructions (imperatives). This pattern is logically, theologically and philosophically sound, and it is very typical of Pauline construction. Truths and principles concerning the nature of God and man logically and soundly precede imperatives, or instructions and practical advice concerning the outworking of faith in believers’ lives.