Background on Colossians

Author

The author of Colossians is blatantly stated to be Paul (1:1). Timothy likely served as the scribe while Paul dictated the content with exception to the final verse of the letter, which Paul wrote with his own hand. Many scholars have tried to argue that Paul did not author this letter; rather, someone (who called himself Paul) wrote the letter much later. Their argument is based primarily upon the writing style of the letter and Paul’s Christology.

First, the writing style of Colossians is quite different from many of Paul’s other letters. However, to make the claim that a man as intelligent as Paul could not have variations in his writing style is a ludicrous claim. In fact, the stylistic differences are actually justified. The church in Colossae was predominately a Gentile community and Paul had never met them. Most of Paul’s other letters were written to mainly Jewish gatherings and people that he knew personally. Thus, it would make sense that Paul would write to the Colossians in a different manner.

Second, some argue that Paul’s Christology is too advanced for this to be a genuine letter from Paul. This argument is based upon the belief that the first generation apostles did not believe that Jesus was fully God and fully man; instead, our present-day Christology evolved over time. We, of course, reject that notion, finding a plethora of biblical evidence that supports our Christological beliefs. Commentator William Barclay offers a significant point against the scholars who reject Paul’s authorship: “the germ of all Paul’s though about Christ in Colossians does, in fact, exist in one of his earlier letters. In 1 Corinthians 8:6 he writes of one Lord Jesus Christ through whom are all things and through whom we exist. In that phrase is the essence of all he says in Colossians” (100).

Thus we can reasonably conclude that the letter to the Colossians was not written by another man using the name of Paul nor did Paul’s Christology become grander by the time of his writing Colossians. Instead, Paul sought to express the majestic mystery of Christ because the glory of Christ was under attack by heretics.

Theme

All things (visible and invisible) were made through and for Christ, and He is the sustainer of all creation. By His blood, Christ is reconciling all things with the Father, ushering in the new creation and transforming our lives.

Background

The city of Colossae was located in the Lycus Valley of present day Turkey. Within the valley of the Lycus River existed three important cities of Asia Minor: Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae. Together, these cities were known for their production of highly valuable fabric (Bruce, 8). So rich were these cities that Laodicea did not use Roman aid when recovering from a devastating earthquake (Barclay, 91). The riches of Laodicea continued at least into the first century because John records Jesus’ message to the church of that city as such: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). However, while Laodicea continued to prosper, Colossae did not. J. B. Lightfoot claims that “Colossae was the least important church to which any epistle of St. Paul was addressed” (16). Indeed, by the time of the New Testament, Colossae was little more than a small town that used to have a degree of prominence. However, size is not a precursor for being used by God. Though Paul did not plant the church in Colossae, he had a deep love for them. The size or importance of the city made no difference to the apostle. When he heard of the battle for truth that confronted the Colossians, he wrote one of the most stunning and magnificent descriptions of Christ within the entire New Testament. Too many are quick to give effort and energy only to areas that seem best suited for them; however, Paul freely gave his wisdom and prayers to a small town church, even while he was also giving it to cities like Rome, Ephesus, and Corinth. Also, because of many phrases that Paul uses throughout Colossians, we can conclude that he was writing to a primarily Gentile church.

A few signs throughout the letter also suggest that Paul did not plant this church. First, in 1:9, Paul states “from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you.” This implies that Paul only heard of their beginning as a church, as does 1:4. Second, Paul claims in 2:1 that he struggles for the believers in Colossae, Laodicea, and all those who have not seen his face. It seems that Colossae and Laodicea are among those who have not seen him face to face. Third, Paul states that they learned from Epaphras in 1:7. Thus, it appears that Epaphras planted the church in Colossae.

Purpose

Paul wrote to the Colossians primarily to combat heresy (see the section below for details on the Colossian Heresy). A false teaching was rampant among the church in Colossae, and it was devaluing Jesus Christ. Thus, Paul wrote to correctly display the glory of Christ, the gospel of Christ, and the impact of Christ in the life of the believer. Colossians can easily be divided into two parts: chapters 1-2 and chapters 3-4. The first two chapters address the theological arguments for the supremacy of Christ, while the final chapters detail the impact and applications that Christ’s supremacy should have in our daily lives.

Because of this structure, many have noticed striking similarities between Colossians and Ephesians (Ephesians can also be divided in half like Colossians). Though Colossians and Ephesians are quite similar, they complement one another rather than serving as replacements. Colossians and Ephesians are two sides of the same coin, and both are needed to complete the theology found within them.

The Colossian Heresy

The details we have of the heresy within Colossae are found in the letter of Colossians, even then all of our descriptions come from Paul’s opposing arguments. Nevertheless, from the points that Paul makes, we can conclude some basics of the Colossian Heresy.

First, it devalued Christ. This is the most devastating attack of the heresy upon Christian doctrine. The entire basis of the Christian faith is in Christ. If we devalue the worth and work of Christ, then we have undercut the whole potency of Christianity. From the emphasis that Paul places upon the deity of Christ, we can conclude that they primarily did not view Jesus as being God; however, the opposite false teaching is equally as dangerous: believing that Christ was not fully human. Paul, therefore, strongly emphasizes both the deity and humanity of Christ. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9).

Second, the heresy was probably highly influenced by Jewish mysticism. Practitioners of Jewish mysticism strongly emphasized religious observances and regulations, as well as an unhealthy interest in spiritual matters. Jewish mystics were prone to worshipping angels and exalting visions, which 2:18 warns about. They also were strict ascetics, likely emphasizing circumcision as necessary for salvation and the importance of observing certain festivals and dietary restrictions (2:11,16-23). The problem with these is, of course, that only Jesus is necessary for salvation.

Third, these false teachers swayed by Hellenistic philosophies. The philosophies of the Greco-Roman world are legendary, even today. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are still regarded as some of the greatest thinkers of all time; however, much of their philosophies are contrary to Christian doctrine. Though we cannot be certain of exactly what philosophy was being taught, most propose that it was a form of Gnosticism.

Gnostics were known for primarily two teachings. First, they sought to learn a secret knowledge that would allow them to reach God. Second, they saw all material things as evil and all spiritual things as good. Therefore, they concluded that God did not directly create the world because a good spiritual God could not create an evil material world. The goal of Gnosticism then was to reach God in spirituality through the secret knowledge. The view of material as evil and spiritual as good leads to a unique set of circumstances. Gnostics were prone to both legalism and antinomianism. In some places, they were highly restrictive, but in others, they were utterly careless about what they did with their bodies. Paul combats this notion by explaining that the entire world was created through and for Christ; therefore, He created the material world good.

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