Background of Colossians
Colosse was located approximately 110 miles east of Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia (in modern Turkey), within ten miles of Hierapolis and Laodicea (2:1; 4:12-16). Though once a large and influential city, Colosse had declined considerably, and was destroyed by earthquakes a few generations later.
Paul’s fruitful ministry at Ephesus resulted in a wider dispersion of the gospel throughout the region (Acts 19:10); possibly Epaphras was saved through Paul’s preaching there, and carried the gospel back to his home town Colosse (1:7; 4:12). Paul has not visited Colosse personally (2:1), yet has a close connection to Epaphras as well as Philemon, in whose home the assembly gathered (Phm v 2). Now Paul is in prison at Rome (4:3,18), along with Epaphras (Phm v 23), and writes with concern for their continued stability in the faith.
The close similarity in structure and content with the Ephesian epistle, and reference to Tychicus as bearer of both epistles, and corresponding personal references in the personal letter to Philemon, suggest strongly that they were written and sent at the same time. Ephesians highlights the glory and unity of the Church as the Body of Christ; Colossians exalts the glory and sufficiency of Christ as Head of the Church. Similarly, Paul’s letter to Philemon is dominated by his tender appeal for reconciliation of Onesimus to Philemon. Reconciliation is a beautiful theme in Colossians.
Reasons for Writing
Paul’s purpose is twofold: to correct false teaching concerning the Person of Christ; and to warn against behavior inconsistent with their position in Christ. The error assailing the Colossians was a synthesis of Jewish legalism (2:11, 16) and Gnostic philosophy and mysticism (2:8, 18,20-23) with Christian teaching. Gnosticism held that matter is evil – God and matter are therefore antagonistic. They theorized that God had put forth a series of emanations or “aeons,” each more distant and possessing less of deity, till one existed far enough removed from God, so that his creative activities could not compromise the purity of God. This lesser power was ignorant of and hostile to God! These “offshoots of deity” were supposed to inhabit the stars and control man’s destiny; therefore worshiped to curry favor! As a result, salvation required specialized knowledge which the Gnostics alone possessed.
Error concerning the Person of Christ: the “Christ” of the Gnostics was an intermediary aeon possessing only partial deity; some also taught that His body was a phantom, denying His physical humanity; others suggested the Christ aeon came upon the man Jesus at His baptism, and left Him before His death.
Error affecting Christian behavior: the teaching that matter is evil led to two extremes, asceticism (2:22-23), and libertinism (3:5-7).
Theme of Letter
The myth-dispelling glorious theme of Colossians is Christ the fullness of God to us: Christ absolutely supreme, and totally sufficient as Savior and Head. The rich exposition of the unique relationship of Christ to God, and to creation (“Image of the invisible God … Firstborn of all creation,” 1:15), and to the new creation (“Head … Firstborn from the dead” 1:18) prepares us for the triumphant declaration that all fullness and all sufficiency reside in Him. Redemption and reconciliation to God are secured in Him, and we need nothing more, and no one else. Chapter 2:9-10 sums up the truth, and sweeps away the fraudulent claims of speculative philosophy: “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him Who is the head of all principality and power.”
“In Him were all things created … and in Him all things consist” (1:16-17) reveals Christ as Creator and Sustainer. All things were designed in harmony with His nature and character, and everything derives its proper place, significance, and value in harmony with Him. His power, His will, His holiness, righteousness, loving kindness, goodness, sincerity, faithfulness, wisdom – all of these qualities are to find expression, be displayed, and control what exists in creation. From the minutest particle and form of energy to the greatest galaxies, His power and wisdom are displayed and in control. There is beauty and glory everywhere. The forms of life on earth manifest various aspects of His greatness. Who has not wondered in admiration at the beautiful flowers – the patterns and colors, the fragrances? What variety, and in some cases, what nobility of being, is seen in the animal creation! In man, we see evidences of God’s personal nature and being, as designed and given capacity to represent God in the visible realm. Yet how tragic the results of rebellion against Him! The risen Christ as our Creator, Redeemer, and Reconciler is the unifying power, and the integrating principle of the universe.
Chapter 3 develops this reality, centered around two wonderful concepts: “Christ is all, and in all,” and “the new man, which is renewed in knowledge according to the IMAGE of Him that created him” (3:10-11). The preceding exhortations challenge us to strip off all the hateful and corrupt principles and behaviors that are inconsistent with Christ. The following exhortations challenge us to put on the character of tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearance, forgiveness, love …. These all add up to Christ! He is our true life source, and our Leader. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another” (3:16). This is not “pie in the sky” theology, but the essentials for overcoming evil, and developing the life that is in harmony with Himself. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (1:27)!
Paul’s prayer of 1:9-11 corresponds to the basic analysis of the epistle:
Colossians 1-2 – Doctrinal: “That ye might be filled with knowledge” (v 9)
Colossians 3-4 – Practical: “That you might walk worthy of the Lord” (v 11)
Colossians 1 – The Supremacy and Sufficiency of Christ. Key Verses: 1:18-19
Colossians 2 – Christ – Victorious Head. Complete in Christ. Key Verses: 2:9-10
Colossians 3 – Life with Christ in God – Vision, Victory. Key Verses: 3:1, 11
Colossians 4 – Responsibilities in the Work of God. Key Verses: 4:2, 5-6