Thank You, Whitney W., for your great words, wisdom, and instruction as we begin this new study!
Today we begin our study in the book of Colossians and I couldn’t be more thrilled. This letter is very near and dear to me as one of my favorite books in all of the Scriptures. It is the most Christocentric or Christ-centered book we have in the entire Bible, presenting us with one of the highest developed Christologies (the study of Christ). It many ways, this epistle serves as Paul’s climatic work on understanding, developing, and communicating who Christ is. So, I will repeat it, I am THRILLED to begin this study on the book of Colossians because I believe we are going to develop a higher view of Christ and treasure him in new and fresh ways having drank from the deep fountain of Christ that is poured out on us in this letter.
Genre of Colossians
The book of Colossians is an epistle. The epistles were letters written by different authors, to different audiences, addressing different needs. Their difference is stressed because it’s important to know that no one letter is the same. The one thing that the epistles do have in common is that they are all occasional documents. This means they all arose out of and were intended for a specific occasion in the first century.
Therefore, when reading Colossians it’s important to take the following things into account:
- This epistle was written first for the people in Colossae in the first century and only then for us today in the twenty-first century.
- Paul wrote Colossians in response to the false philosophy that was penetrating the church at Colossae. This specific event is what occasioned the letter.
- Epistles were written with the intent of being read straight through in one sitting, so it is beneficial to begin this study by reading straight through Colossians, aloud if possible.
Since this is the case, let us begin our study on Colossians today by reading through the entire letter in one sitting this morning. As we do we’re going to get some historical background to the city of Colossae, the people living in it, and the church. We are going to seek to answer the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, & WHY of this letter.
Historical & Cultural Background
The ancient city of Colossae was situated on the southern bank of the river Lycus. It was once a city described as a great, wealthy, and populous city. Over the years however, this great city declined considerably in size and importance as it became overshadowed by larger surrounding cities such as Laodicea and Hierapolis. So much so, that at the time of this writing, Colossae was considered a small town in the Lycus river valley (modern-day Turkey) directly inland from Ephesus about 80-100 miles away. Its commercial and social importance was already waning substantially.
But its spiritual importance was no less important to God than greater cities like Ephesus or Laodicea. God is deeply concerned about all peoples, tribes, tongues, and nations. He moves spiritually in booming urban cities that lead the pack in innovation and creativity and commercialism. And he works in smaller cities or rural towns who has seen it’s day come and go and are now cities that are declining in worldly importance and prestige. Yes, there are more strategic places to share the gospel (such as large urban areas as was Paul’s custom), but the fact that we have the Letter to the Colossians, a book that develops the highest Christology in all of Scripture, written to a small town that the world no longer cared much for reveals something to me about the character of God—he is concerned about the spiritual welfare of ALL peoples.
The people that made up Colossae were both Jew and Greek settlers who had made their homes in this city. Many of these peoples would have brought their own spiritual influences and beliefs with them to Colossae making it a melting pot of sorts consisting of various cultural and religious backgrounds (Gnostics, Jews, Stoics, pagan mystics, etc). The diverse nature of the religious and cultural backdrop of Colossae will surely come to bear upon the nature of the church as we begin to discover the occasion for the letter.
The church was planted by one of its own natives Epaphras. The Colossians were not converted by Paul himself as he had done his work in Asia Minor and not yet reached Colossae in the upper valley of the Lycus. Yet, this Christian community had come into existence during a period of vigorous missionary and evangelistic activity associated with Paul’s Ephesian ministry. A Colossian man (one of their own!) had traveled to Ephesus and heard the gospel proclaimed by Paul and was converted through the hearing and receiving of the truth. Get this-Epaphras then carries this glorious gospel message back to his hometown of Colossae and shares it with his community. A local church was established under his preaching and grew strong in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul calls Epaphras a beloved fellow servant and a faithful minister of Christ on the Colossians behalf.
Take a moment to reflect on this man who is the prototype in many ways of a true convert: He heard the word of truth or the gospel message proclaimed by Paul. He believed that message, repented of his sin and turned towards Christ in complete faith. Though it would have been tempting to stay in the great city of Ephesus with the great Apostle Paul and be discipled under him (after all this WAS the APOSTLE PAUL…talk about being near all the action!!), he felt compelled to go back home and share this gospel message with those he knew and loved so dearly. So he traveled back to Colossae and preached the clear gospel message. It says they “learned” the word of the truth (gospel shorthand) from Epaphras. From there the Christian community was founded and began to grow deeply in the gospel of grace. This is INCREDIBLE!!! Don’t pass over it quickly. This man was transformed when he heard and received the gospel and then his life evidenced to this great change by church planting!!! Now, this is not to say that we all have to have the same type of conversion as Epaphras or go plant churches but it should challenge us to think about our own conversion experiences. When you heard the Word of truth, the gospel of salvation, were you that excited to go and share with those in your family? Your school? Your local neighborhood? Were you so compelled by the message that you just HAD to tell people about Jesus? Were you willing to forego the action and at times sacrifice being around the “right” people so that you could take the gospel to a new area that hadn’t yet been reached? These are penetrating questions that we are forced to consider as we are faced with Epaphras and the founding of the church at Colossae. Now, on to the book!
Who, What, Where, When, Why
Who: Who is the author(s) and who are the recipients of this letter?
Paul and Timothy are explicitly named as the authors of Colossians (1:1). Timothy probably served as Paul’s secretary since the first person singular (“I”) is used throughout the letter. Paul dictated the majority of this letter to his secretary and then wrote the final greeting with his own hand (4:18). The recipients of this letter are explicitly stated as the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (1:2).
What: What is the general theme of the book?
At the most basic level, the great idea that courses through Colossians is the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ. The more specific theme and theme verses in the workbook is Col. 2:6-7, “essentially, as you received Christ so walk in Christ.” But if you zoom out even further it’s the supremacy/sufficiency of Christ over and against all false competing philosophies that drives this letter. You’re going to find it laced throughout every sentence and through every page. You won’t be able to read more than a couple of sentences without running into the term “Christ”. As a matter of fact, the term “Christ” (literally “the Anointed One”, thus it’s Jesus the anointed or chosen one) is used at least 25 times (depending on translation) in this small book consisting of only four chapters.
We’re continually confronted with Christ who is the Creator of the World, the Savior of God’s People, and Ruler over all the universe, both over those things seen and those things unseen. Paul stresses that Christ has secured redemption for his people enabling them to participate with him in his death, resurrection, and the fullness of his life. And in Christ God is reconciling all things to himself. The new life that was once thought to be offered at the end of the age has now broken into our world through the risen and reigning Christ.
Where: Where are the author(s) and where are the recipients?
We know that the recipients of this letter are in Colossae. But where Paul’s location is a bit more disputed. We do know for certain that Paul is in prison. Having followed the Acts narrative along with compiling data from this other epistles we can narrow this imprisonment down to either Rome or Ephesus. For the majority of church history, Rome was favored as the place of his imprisonment. As a matter of fact, just last week I said I believed the book of Philippians was written during Paul’s Roman imprisonment (and whatever imprisonment we’re dealing with would be the same one). However, after doing more study I’ve become more convinced that he very well may be imprisoned in Ephesus. It comes down to some scholarly semantics that we won’t dive into today. I know that the workbook assumes a Roman imprisonment and I affirm that that is a very likely option. I also know that scholars have gone back and forth on this one and there is no hard consensus. I now favor the Ephesian imprisonment and that’s okay too. We don’t finally need to know it in order to understand the letter. Our historical knowledge of the background illuminates the text for us but never ultimately determines the meaning of it. But I want to encourage all of us to study the Scriptures diligently and think critically in hopes of knowing God more deeply. At the end of the day, God has given us ALL we NEED to know him, worship him, and glorify him through Christ and that’s what matters most. I just always want you to know there are options and many times these options can be challenged. The only thing this will directly affect is the timing of the writing.
When: When was this book written?
If this was written during Paul’s Roman imprisonment then it likely has a later date between A.D. 58-62 with the consensus being closer to AD 62. If it was the Ephesian imprisonment then it was likely an earlier date between AD 54-57. The only factor that this really affects is the age of the church. We know that Epaphras was converted under Paul’s teaching in Ephesus and went back to plant the church. The very oldest the Colossian church could have been is about ten years. If you favor an Ephesian imprisonment then that means this infant church was really REALLY young…perhaps necessitating even more urgency on Paul’s end to stop this false teaching immediately before it harms such a young and fragile community.
Why: Why was this letter written?
Unlike many of Paul’s other letters (such as Corinthians and Galatians) this letter is filled with praise, noting how the congregation’s life and conduct are worthy of praise and thanksgiving to God. As a matter of fact, Epaphras travels back to Paul to update him on the progress of the gospel in the Lycus Valley and how it’s going forth into all the world and bearing fruit among the people in that area. This would have been such a GREAT encouragement to the Apostle Paul who was at the time in chains because of preaching the gospel of Jesus as the promised Lord. He preached that Jesus was the Christ, literally the “anointed one” or “chosen one” of God to carry out his great plan of redemption. And his landed him in prison on several occasions.
But Epaphras didn’t go back to Paul only to give him an encouraging report. This letter was occasioned for another specific (and perhaps more pressing) issue. False teaching had arisen in Colossae that, if allowed to continue, would threaten the life of this young church. When Paul hears of this he writes this letter as a response to the urgent need to deal with the false teacher or false teachers to preserve the life of this young congregation.
The Nature of the Colossian Philosophy
There has been much ink spilled over the nature of the Colossian philosophy that was disrupting this young church. You’ll also hear it called the Colossian heresy by many because it seems to have its own sort of brand. The questions that circle around it are many: Was it simply Judaizers (like those in Galatia) who were threatening the infant church? Was it Judaism with a Gnostic-like flair marked by intellectualism and shadowy mysticism? Was it a pagan mystery cult that allowed the Colossians to continue as Christians but join their non-Christian teachers in a cultic life giving themselves over to mystical powers? Many think it was a syncretism of Gnostic Judaism blended with pagan elements and Hellenistic dualism. To come to a firm conclusion on the exact nature of the false philosophy is beyond our ability as we weren’t there to share in the original communicators, we don’t have the report that Paul gave to Epaphras. We simply have the letter and now we try to piece it back together. We look on as outsiders seeking to understand the nature of the church and what was happening within it to the best of our ability. But, from all the evidence we have, specifically the evidence given within the book, I agree that it was most likely religious syncretism of some sort. Considering the melting pot nature of Colossae with its many pagan and religious influences, it was likely a combination of mystical Jewish and cultic-like pagan beliefs offering the Colossians a type of smorgasbord false teaching.
Think of the parallels we are surrounded with today—pagan mysticism (especially here in Portland), works based Christianity, religiosity, worldliness. In many ways Portland is a melting pot of differing religious and pagan spirituality that could easily seek to destroy young infant churches. There’s always a new idea, a novel way of doing church, a new philosophy or theological interpretation on something that leans dangerously close to falling into the trap of worldly mysticism or magic or legalistic works-based philosophies.
The false teachers (or some think it was a singular false teacher) were challenging the sufficiency of Christ, thus corrupting and defiling the pure message of the gospel. They arose in the Christian community and were taking people’s focus off of Christ and telling them that they needed to have some kind of powerful prayer life or religious experiences or worship angels or perform Jewish customs to access the special, deeper knowledge of spirituality. They were proclaiming that the existence of an elite few could gain special spiritual status through entering into a superior knowledge or adhering to certain rules or rituals or festivals. This false teaching was creating a defective view of Christ in the church. The believers in this young church were being distracted from Christ and drawn in to all sorts of different religious ideas.
Interesting enough, the false teachers (from what we can tell) weren’t trying to say the believers had to denounce the gospel, instead they were insisting that the young believers ADD something to the gospel to gain a greater religious experience. Essentially, they were seeking to deviate from the centrality of Christ and trying to add rituals and human works to the gospel. It may not look exactly the same way today, but isn’t this what we do all the time??? Most of us don’t struggle in thinking we need to renounce the gospel. We aren’t drawn to philosophies that are totally anti-God and anti-Christ. No, it’s the subtle philosophies and subtle religiosity that draws us away from focusing on Jesus. We begin to think that we have to believe the gospel AND read all the right books to be in God’s good graces. We have to believe the gospel AND be a perfect Christian mom in order to reach new levels of spirituality. We have to believe the gospel AND we have to pray or fast or do something special in our devotional time to make God happy with us. We feel a pressure to have some deeper, religious, mystical experience with God.
I really want to make this clear because there are many popular Christian books today especially popular among women advocating subtle philosophies such as the ones found in Colossians. We have to have some mystical experience with God to experience deeper levels of gratitude, joy, and peace. We have to be on some specific diet to find God’s healing for our bodies. We have to do “xyz” to have new revelations from God. But, if you are in Christ, you have EVERYTHING you need to stand shamelessly before the throne of God. You are totally accepted and loved based upon Christ’s merit alone. You have access to all of God’s riches because in Christ all of God’s riches are found. There is nothing more you can add to your faith, nothing more you can do in your life, and nothing more you can be to reach some greater depth of spiritual mysticism—you have Christ in whom all the mystery and riches of God are found. You can rest in the finished work of Jesus knowing that God’s banner over you is always acceptance. He always longs to commune with you through Jesus. The work that Christ started in you, he will complete in you. Of course, you will progressively grow in sanctification but even that is a work grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is sufficient for your salvation, he is sufficient for your sanctification, and he is sufficient for your glorification.
Paul wrote this epistle to the Colossians to show the superiority of Christ over all human philosophies and traditions. He’s straight up saying that Jesus needs to be the FOCUS of your life and the FOCUS of your Jesus community. The gospel is supposed to be FRONT AND CENTER. If there is anything (religious or non-religious) that takes your focus off of Jesus that is NOT what God wants you to be doing.
That said, think about these questions:
- What worldly or religious philosophies seek to take your focus off of Jesus?
- What are you tempted to believe you must do in order to feel more “spiritual” or look more “spiritual” to others?
- What things have distracted you from the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ?
To refute this philosophy Paul isn’t going to give them a list of things they have to do to subvert the false teaching, he is going to give them such a high view of Christ that it is MORE captivating than anything else that has captured their imaginations thus far. The whole book is permeated with a captivating picture of Christ. From the opening words to the final greetings we are going to be given such a high view of Christ that anything else that captures our imaginations will slowly fade into the light of the all glorious one. We will be confronted again and again with the complete sufficiency of Christ against all other vain, empty philosophies and we will be GRIPPED by the powerful preeminence of Christ.