“We give thanks for God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you…” (Colossians 1:3 [NASB])
When considering any biblical letter written to a group of people, we must understand their history, geography, economy, the church to whom it’s written, the issues being addressed, and the person writing the letter. Before we dive into studying Colossians, we must understand who they are, why they think and act the way they do, and what was occurring in the church at that time. Paul expands for the readers of the Letter to the Colossians what issues the Colossae church experienced. He wrote about Christology to the Colossian Christians, specifically, the deity of Christ and fullness of life in Him. This Bible study will teach about the location and history of Colossae, the church at Colossae, how Paul’s relationship to it, and the date and purpose of this letter.
Colossae was a thriving multicultural city in the southwest quadrant of Asia Minor on the Lycus River in what is now Turkey. It was about 9 miles from Laodicea and 6 miles from Hierapolis. Colossae was on a historic commercial and military route that allowed their economy to flourish.
The Babylonians ruled Colossae between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. Because of the trade route that went through Colossae, people from other nations influenced the city and region, Romans, Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks, and the Phrygians. The Roman empire ascended in power and took Asia Minor from the Babylonians in the 2nd century BC. Antiochus, the Hellenistic king of the Seleucid empire, transported 2000 Jewish families from old Babylonia to the Colossae region during the 2nd century BC.
During Roman rule, Colossae and Laodicea developed a significant wool production and weaving trade. Additionally, the Romans built a road called Via Egnatia, which bypassed Colossae. Because of Via Egnatia, the Colossae trade dropped significantly, and Laodicea and Hierapolis became bigger economic concerns. An earthquake destroyed Colossae in the early 60s AD, turning it into a village that never regained its economic stature in the region. Between the Roman road and the earthquake, Colossae became a village as people immigrated to Laodicea and Hierapolis until it was abandoned in the 8th century AD.
Colossae had people of various backgrounds living in and traveling through it. These people brought assorted philosophies, faith systems, cultural backgrounds, and traditions. The people of Colossae experienced cultures, thoughts, and faiths like any major metropolitan city in the 21st century. This often meant mixing them to make a new faith system. This mixing is called syncretizing.
The Greco-Roman world influenced the people of Asia Minor, as did the Jews and Persians. Greek philosophers rejected the idea of gods. Greeks, Romans, Persians, and pagans brought ideas of a pantheon of gods with their required appeasement and the unattainable hope of salvation. The Jews brought a monotheistic idea of faith and an extreme form of monastic Judaism. Monastic Judaism, called Essenism, contained a tiny minority of Jews. How each effecting culture worshipped a god or gods or intellectualized life without gods affected the residents of Asia Minor.
The people of Colossae lived with a cosmic mindset in that many cultures influenced their thought, faith, and daily lives. Paul, when writing to the church at Colossae, set forth Christ in a cosmic context. He taught that Christ is not way above us and unreachable. He explained the body and material things are not evil and the spiritual and intellectual are not the only good like the earliest form of Gnosticism. As Paul believed and taught, informed by the teaching and wisdom of the Holy Spirit of Jesus, Jesus created the universe (all matter), so that makes it good, just as God said in Genesis. The universe depends on Jesus, so He is near. All things were created for Him, for Jesus’ pleasure, purpose, and glory. All wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. Paul explained without Christ all things pass away, but that Christ came to earth to restore it. These mean Jesus is not subordinate to the world. Nothing more is needed to restore people and the universe to Him than what he has done and is doing.
Jewish ideas of faith sometimes mixed with pagan ideas in Colossae. This nontraditional Jewish thought and faith included angel worship, entrance into the heavens, and heightened spiritual experiences. The Jewish thoughts on faith stressed the sabbaths, circumcision, the law, prohibition of certain foods, and keeping religious festival and new moon holy days. The pagan influence came from a idea that relies on ways of reasoning based on human traditions, such as believing in angels. They had a fear of heavenly beings. Pagan ideas of worshipping created elements such as sun, moon, and stars occurred. These ideas included animistic elements of worship. Paul taught Christ has superiority over “thrones, demons, and authorities” (1:16) to combat these false teachings in Colossae.
Gnosticism was in its very earliest form in the 1st century AD. It was a philosophical dualism that considered the body and anything material as evil while all thought, knowledge (gnosis), and spiritual things were good. Salvation for these Gnostics came by knowledge where they considered the enlightened few as “advanced” Christians. Only an elite few had the secret “advanced” knowledge of God and salvation. Gnosticism was a mix of intellectual thought and spiritual elements. Only these few would be saved, and they despised all other people. Gnostics liked to use the words “secret”, “mystery”, “fullness”, and “knowledge”. They denied the full incarnation of the deity in Jesus. Because they deny the full deity in the incarnated Jesus, Gnosticism supposed Christ’s sacrifice was insufficient. Paul taught the deity fully dwelled in Jesus’ incarnate body and His sacrifice reconciled all things to Him. (1:19-20)
Paul explained to the Colossians an “advanced” (elitist) Christianity, as proposed by the earliest thought system of Gnosticism, is false and unnecessary. He said the syncretizing of intellectual thought with Christ’s sacrifice as an “advanced” Christianity is false. Paul wrote to deal with a reported problem with false teachers who taught a mixture of Christianity influenced by Greek philosophy (an early Gnosticism), Jewish legalism, paganism, and Greco-Roman worship of gods. This was the Colossian heresy. Paul wrote to the Colossians to teach them how to settle and correct these problems and influences on the people in the church and in their community. In brief, the Colossian heresy was a mixture of Jewish mysticism, a very early form of Gnosticism, Greek philosophy (which helped form the ideas of the Gnostics), pantheism, and paganism. Paul challenged these false worldviews that some Colossian believers proclaimed.
Though Paul never visited Colossae on his missionary journeys, his connection to them was strong. During two missionary journeys, he spent extended time in Ephesus and the surrounding area so that “all Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” (Acts 19:10 [NIV]) Archippus, Epaphras, and Philemon heard the Gospel during Paul’s time in Asia on his third journey. Epaphras was probably the founding pastor of the churches in Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis (1:7). Epaphras, short for Epaphroditus, was Greek and so the church most likely was Gentile with possibly Jewish believers, too. Though Paul had probably not visited Colossae, he had close connections to them through these men who came to believe in Jesus during his earlier visits to Asia. Because of his great love for the Christ, his desire to share the Gospel and train people as disciples, and because of his close ties with Epaphras, Archippus, and Philemon, Paul cared deeply for the Christians of Colossae.
Bible scholars posit a couple possibilities for the date Paul wrote this letter because he dealt with imprisonment a few times during his ministry. In the letter to the Colossians, he told the Colossians he wrote while imprisoned (4:10). Did Paul write this letter during his confinement in Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea? Local judicial leaders imprisoned him in each of these cities. If he wrote the letter to the Colossians while imprisoned in Caesarea or Ephesus, the letter would date to the mid-50s AD. If Paul wrote it during his Roman imprisonment, then it would date in 59 or 62-63 AD. Good reasons for each dating exist, but none of them are definitive enough to end the query. Most commentators opt for the 62-63 AD dating. That means the order of Paul’s writings puts the letter to the Colossians between his letters to the Romans and the Ephesians.
Paul’s purpose for writing to the Colossian church consisted mostly of addressing the Colossian heresy as noted above in “The Church at Colossae”. In writing about this heresy, he strove to confirm what Epaphras taught them about Jesus, who He is, His nature, and His works, including His time before and after living on earth. Paul reaffirmed the deity of Christ and fullness of life in Him, as he said in Colossians 2:6-7. “Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” [NASB]
The time of Paul’s writing of Colossians is from over 2000 years ago. Is it relevant for today? Consider the thoughts on life, faith, death, beings with supposed power, and the afterlife that people proclaim as their ideology. Use these questions to guide your thinking.
Each of these questions address the elements Paul wrote about in his letter to the Colossians. We will study in detail what Paul said regarding them and then will consider how it can direct us as we sift through our own ideas, thoughts, and faith. To prepare for our next Bible study, read through all four chapters of Colossians, then re-read Colossians 1:1-8.
“…may you be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord…” (1:9b-10a [NASB])