Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae is one of the prison letters (along with Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon). Paul’s desire with this letter was to correct the false teachings that were cropping up in the church. In doing so, Paul presented a clear picture of Jesus Christ as supreme Lord of the universe, head of the church, and the only one through whom forgiveness is possible.
“For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and by him all things hold together” (1:16-17). This image beautifully captures a triangular glow seen best in night skies free of overpowering moonlight and light pollution. The photograph was taken at European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile in September 2009, facing west some minutes after the sun had set. A sea of clouds has settled in the valley below La Silla, which sits at an altitude of 7,900 feet, with lesser peaks and ridges poking through the mist. The light is sunlight reflected by dust particles between the sun and earth, and is best seen close to sunrise or sunset. This celestial glow appears in the ring of twelve constellations. These are found along the ecliptic, which is the eastward apparent “path” that the sun traces across earth’s sky.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF WRITING
AUTHOR: The Apostle Paul is identified as the author of Colossians (1:1; 4:18). The church fathers unreservedly endorsed Pauline authorship (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., 3.14.1; Tertullian, De Praescr. Haer., 7; Clement of Alexandria, Strom., 1.1; cp. Justin, Dialogue, 85.2; 138.2). A close reading of Colossians reveals a considerable number of lexical, grammatical, and theological similarities with the other Pauline writings (1:9,26; 2:11-14,16,20-21; 3:1,3,5-17). Also favoring the authenticity of Colossians as a letter of Paul is its close connection with Philemon, an epistle widely regarded as Pauline.
BACKGROUND: During his ministry in Ephesus (Ac 19:10), Paul sent Epaphras to spread the gospel in the Lycus Valley. Epaphras subsequently established the church at Colossae (1:7; 4:12-13). The city’s population consisted mostly of Phrygians and Greeks, but it also included a significant number of Jews. The church, likewise, was mostly composed of Gentiles (1:21,27; 2:13), but it also had Jewish members (2:11,16,18,21; 3:11). When Epaphras (Phm 23) informed Paul of certain heretical teachings that had spread there, Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians as a theological antidote.
Paul wrote Colossians during his first Roman imprisonment (4:3,10,18; cp. Ac 28:30-31; Eusebius, Hist. eccl., 2.22.1) in the early AD 60s. Together with Philemon, Philippians, and Ephesians, Colossians is commonly classified as a “prison epistle.” All four epistles share several personal links that warrant this conclusion (Col 1:7; 4:7-8,17; Eph 6:21-22; Phm 2,12,23).
MESSAGE AND PURPOSE
Paul wrote to counter the “Colossian heresy” that he considered an affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The false teaching is identified as a “philosophy” (2:8), presumably drawn from some Hellenistic traditions as indicated by the references to “his fullness” (1:19); the “elements of the world” (Gk stoicheia, 2:8,20); “wisdom” (2:3,23); and “self-made religion” (2:23). In addition, the false teaching contained Jewish elements such as circumcision (2:11; 3:11); “human tradition” (2:8); Sabbath observance, food regulations, festival participation (2:16); the “worship of angels” together with “access to a visionary realm” (2:18); and harsh human regulations (2:21-23). Paul addressed this syncretistic philosophy by setting forth a proper understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ and by noting appropriate implications for Christian conduct.
The heresy is not identified, but several characteristics of the heresy are discernible. (1) An inferior view of Christ is combated in 1:15-20. This Christological passage implies that the heretics did not consider Jesus to be fully divine or perhaps did not accept him as the sole source of redemption. (2) The Colossians were warned to beware of “philosophies” not built on Christ (2:8). (3) The heresy apparently involved the legalistic observance of “traditions,” circumcision, and various dietary and festival laws (2:8,11,16,21; 3:11). (4) The worship of angels and lesser spirits was encouraged by the false teachers (2:8,18). (5) Asceticism, the deprivation or harsh treatment of one’s “evil” physical body, was promoted (2:20-23). (6) Finally, the false teachers claimed to have special insight (perhaps special revelations) that made them (rather than the apostles or the Scriptures) the ultimate source of truth (2:18-19).
Scholars cannot agree on who these false teachers were. Some of the characteristics cited above seem to be Jewish; others sound like gnostic teachings. Some see the teachings of a Greek mystery religion here.
The theology of chaps. 1 and 2 is followed by exhortations to live a Christian life in chaps. 3 and 4. The commands to “put to death” (3:5) and “put away” (3:8) the things that will reap the wrath of God (3:5-11) are balanced by the command to “put on” (3:12) those things characteristic of God’s chosen people (3:12-17). The changes are far from superficial, however. They stem from the Christian’s new nature and submission to the rule of Christ in every area of life (3:9-10,15-17).
Rules for the household appear in 3:18-4:1. The typical first-century household is assumed; thus the passage addresses wives and husbands, fathers and children, masters and slaves. Paul made no comment about the rightness or wrongness of the social structures; he accepted them as givens. Paul’s concern was that the structures as they existed should be governed by Christian principles. Submission to the Lord (3:18,20,22; 4:1), Christian love (3:19), and the prospect of divine judgment (3:24-4:1) must determine the way people treat one another regardless of their social status. It is this Christian motivation that distinguishes these household rules from those featured in Jewish and pagan sources.
CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE
Colossians provides one of the Bible’s fullest expressions of the deity and supremacy of Christ. This is most evident in the magnificent hymn of praise (1:15-20) that sets forth Christ as the image of the invisible God, the Creator and sustainer of the universe, and the head of his body, the church. In Christ are all the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:3), because in him “the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily” (2:9). The supremacy of Christ also has implication for believers’ salvation (2:10,13,20; 3:1,11-12,17) and conduct (3:5-4:6). Colossians contributes to Scripture a high Christology and a presentation of its implications for the believer’s conduct.
Colossians may be divided into two main parts. The first (1:3-2:23) is a vigorous criticism of false teachings. The second (3:1-4:17) is made up of exhortations to proper Christian living. This is typical of Paul’s approach, presenting a theology position first, a position on which the practical exhortations are built. The introduction (1:1-2) is in the form of a Hellenistic, personal letter.
Notable in the final section are the mention of Onesimus (4:9), which links this letter with Philemon; the mention of a letter at Laodicea (4:16) that may have been Ephesians; and Paul’s concluding signature, which indicates that the letter was prepared by an amanuensis (secretary; see 4:18).