This letter to the church at Colosse is closely related to the one to the church at Ephesus. They were written about the same time and under the same circumstances. Even the thoughts are very similar. There are differences however. Colossians is more polemical, it deals with combating error, while Ephesians concentrates upon encouragement and teaching. The polemics of Colossians deal with a specific heresy that plagued that congregation, while Ephesians has a broader application. The doctrinal emphasis is also different; Ephesians stresses that the church is the body of Christ and Christ is its head, while Colossians views Christ from a broader point of view, that of Head of the entire universe.
THE COLOSSIAN CHURCH
The city of Colosse was located about 100 miles east of Ephesus, 13 miles from Hierapolis, and 10 miles from Laodicea. It was in the region of Phrygia on the Lycus River which flowed into the Euphrates valley. In the fourth century before Christ, Xerxes and Cyrus visited this city. In later times the city diminished in stature and was overshadowed by Laodicea.
From the letter itself (Col. 2:1), Paul indicates that he did not know the members of the church by personal contact; he had learned of them from others (Col. 1:4). Whether this means that Paul never traveled to Colosse, we cannot tell. We conclude from this that Paul was not directly involved in the establishment of this congregation. While Paul labored in Ephesus for two years during his second missionary journey, the gospel spread throughout that entire region: “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the Word of the Lord Jesus both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). During this time a young man by the name of Epaphras came to him from Colosse to learn about the truths of the gospel of Christ. Paul instructed him and sent him back to Colosse and the regions about there, to preach the gospel (Col. 4:12, 13). Hence, Paul refers to Epaphras as “our dear fellow-servant” (Col. 1:7). At the same time, he became the minister of that congregation, “who is for you a faithful minister of Christ” (Col. 1:7). Probably Timothy accompanied him, since Paul refers to Timothy as “our brother” in the greeting (Col. 1:1).
A few things seem to indicate that the congregation of Colosse was mostly Gentile converts. In Colossians 1:27 we read, “To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Again inColossians 2:13 Paul refers to the “uncircumcision of your flesh.” The error that forms the background of this letter was a strange mixture of pagan (Gentile) philosophy and Jewish legalism. Some Jews had fled to that region through the dispersion and evidently had some influence on the thinking of the people.
AUTHOR, OCCASION, AND DATE
Colossians was written by the Apostle Paul. He designated himself as the author (Col. 1:1). He was accepted as the author by the early Christian church both by the quotations the early church fathers made from this book and by their acceptance of him as the author. A later objection to the Pauline authorship came when it was pointed out by the higher critics that the vocabulary and style were different from Paul’s writings. They discovered thirty-four words in this brief epistle that are not found in his other letters. If, however, one allows for the use of such words due to the subject matter being discussed and the circumstances under which he wrote, the differences are no more than in his other epistles. We may conclude without reservation that Paul wrote these words by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The letter to the Colossians is one of the prison epistles written by Paul during his early imprisonment in Rome. The other early prison epistles were Ephesians and Philemon. Philippians was written during his second imprisonment at a later date. During his first imprisonment, Paul could have friends stay with him in the house and comfort him. This letter to the Colossians indicates that Mark, Aristarchus, Justus, Luke, Demas, and others were with him in Rome (Col. 4:10, 14).
Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon were written about the same time. Tychicus was the man who brought the letter to Colosse (Col. 4:7). He also car ried the letter to Philemon. You remember that Philemon was a member of the church at Colosse who owned Onesimus, the runaway slave, who fled to Paul at Rome and who was instructed by Paul to return to his master. While Tychicus was bringing this letter to Philemon, he also took with him Onesimus (Col. 4:9). While making this trip, Tychicus would naturally pass through Ephesus, so it was easy for him to drop off that letter en route.
These facts lead us to set the date of composition about A.D. 62.
The immediate occasion for writing this letter was the information Paul received by Epaphras that the church of Colosse was being attacked by an evil philosophy.
Paul immediately warns the church that they be not spoiled by “philosophy and vain deceit” (Col. 2:8). In this letter he also designates some of the evil tenants of the false religion that was making inroads into the church of Colosse. They worshiped angels (Col. 2:18); practiced voluntary asceticism—that is, abstained from certain things and restricted the body (Col. 2:18, 20-23); and practiced certain Jewish laws regarding food, drink, feasting, and ceremonial days (Col. 2:11, 16, 17).
This heresy was a strange mixture of Judaism and Eastern philosophy. The seeds of Gnosticism are evident, though as a philosophy it did not reach its great influence until the second century. The ascetic tendency was rooted in the notion that earth and the physical were evil. They glorified the mind, and the ultimate goal was to rise above the flesh. They saw in Jewish laws a spirit of self-denial. The angels were heavenly hosts able to come between man and God to help deliver man from the limits of his earthly existence. Hence, they prayed to angels as if they could intercede with God.
The concern that Paul had with the presence of this evil philosophy is evident. If this lie was allowed to be taught and go unchallenged, the church would once again be placed under the bondage of the law. True, it was different from the old Jewish legalists who carried the formalism of the Pharisees into the church. Yet, the result would be the same, to be right with God one had to keep seasons and external rituals, etc. Because his readers were Gentile converts, Paul did not argue that the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament did away with the external legalism of the law as he did in the letter to the Galatians. Rather, here he points out that in Christ all the external emphasis is done away by the cross (Col. 2:12, 13). In addition to this, if such ideas of angels were allowed to go unchallenged, eventually the universal rule of Christ would be lost. Only Christ is the true Head of all things as He serves the One Living God (Col. 1:19, 20).
Here too we can appreciate the glorious gospel that the Holy Spirit gave the Apostle Paul to write. Here he is in prison, yet surrounded by his fellow laborers who come and go, keeping him informed on the welfare of the church. Now comes Epaphras from Colosse and reports on the condition of the church there. He tells Paul of the terrible philosophy that has infiltrated the church and influenced some of the members. Perhaps some have even left the faith. And for what? the beggarly doctrine that teaches men to hate their bodies and flee from the world, to pray to angels rather than to Christ. What is the answer? It is this: Christ Jesus, He is the image of the invisible God! He redeemed His people by His precious blood and delivered them from condemnation. He is exalted higher than all principalities and powers, above devils and angels. He is the Head of the church, the Firstborn from the dead. Now, in Him we that are afar off are reconciled unto God. Indeed, the Headship of Christ over the whole universe, especially the church, is God’s good news to His people. That cannot be compared to the foolishness of men. The letter to the Colossians gives us that detail. Well may we open our eyes to read and our hearts to understand.