Background to Colossians
The letter to the Colossians was composed by the apostle Paul during one of his many times in prison for declaring Jesus as the risen Lord of the world. Paul is writing to a community of Jesus followers in the ancient city of Colossae, in modern-day Turkey.
Unlike a lot of Paul’s other letters, Colossians was written to a church community that Paul did not start. In fact, Paul had never met most of them (Colossians 2:1, 5). The Colossian church was started by Paul’s friend and coworker Epaphras (Colossians 1:7). When Paul wrote this letter, the Colossian church was still young in the faith, and among the primary aims of the letter is Christian maturity. Epaphras was in prison with Paul (Philemon 23) and told him that the Colossian church was bearing fruit and doing well overall, but they were facing intense pressure from false teachers that were trying to lead the believers to accept doctrines and ways of life that contradict the teaching of the gospel.
Paul wrote this letter to give the young Colossian congregation a robust understanding of the majesty of Jesus and his work on the cross, and to challenge them to stay faithful to Jesus in the face of challenging opposition.
The letter can be divided into five major movements:
1. Introduction; Paul thanks God for the Colossians and shares his prayer for them. (1:1-14)
2. A poem and celebration of Jesus, the creator and exalted King of the cosmos (1:15-23)
3. Paul personally introduces himself to the Colossians (1:24-2:5)
4. Paul addresses the cultural pressures and false teaching that is attempting to take the Colossians captive (2:6-23)
5. Practical instructions (3:1-4:6) and closing greetings (4:7-18)
Background Information on Colossae
• Located on the banks of the Lycus river in southeast Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey)
• Colossae was a mid-size city, though it had been larger and more significant in the past. It was located near larger, more important towns like Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Ephesus.
• A large earthquake destroyed the city about a decade after Paul wrote this letter (around 67 AD), and the city has been buried in ruins ever since. The city has never been excavated, limiting our knowledge of Colossae.
Colossians’ Relationship with Paul’s other Letters
The letter to the Colossians has a close relationship with two of Paul’s other letters: namely, the letters to Philemon and to the Ephesians.
Philemon – The letter known as Colossians is one of two letters sent together by Paul to Colossae, the other being a short letter addressed to Philemon, a leader in the church in Colossae. Indeed, all of the people mentioned in the closing greetings of Colossians (4:7-18) are mentioned again in the letter to Philemon, except Tychicus, who delivered the letters to Colossae (Colossians 4:7-8), and Jesus, who is called Justus (Colossians 4:11).
Paul mentions to the Colossians that Tychicus is coming to Colossae with a man named Onesimus, whom Paul refers to as one of [them] (Colossians 4:9), for Onesimus was from Colossae and was a runaway slave of Philemon. Onesimus’ return to Colossae is the principal subject matter of Paul’s letter to Philemon.
Ephesians – The letter to the Colossians is very similar to Paul’s letter known as Ephesians in its content, themes, and style. Many passages in Colossians have close parallels in Ephesians, with the parallels sometimes being nearly identical. The similarities between these two letters have led some scholars to refer to them as the twin epistles.
What is the nature of the false teaching(s) Paul is combating?
Biblical scholars are divided on what the Colossian heresy, as they often call it, was. Some suggest it was a pagan cult, others Gnosticism, or mystical Judaism, and some scholars contend it was a mix of all of the aforementioned religious movements
There are clear Jewish elements in what Paul is opposing, and yet there are many things that seem to be very pagan. Here’s a list of things the false teachers in Colossae are trying to bring into the church:
• Hollow and deceptive philosophies (2:8)
• Circumcision (2:11)
•Dietary restrictions (2:16)
• Observing religious festivals (2:16)
•Mandatory Sabbath observance (2:16)
• Worship of angels (2:18)
• Faux-spiritual asceticism (2:23)
Regardless of the exact religious perspective of Paul’s opponents, what is clear is that Paul wants the Colossian church to mature in their walk with Jesus. The way to maturity does not require the Colossians to become Jews or follow any of these pseudo-spiritual doctrines. Instead, they must come to a deeper understanding of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, see Him as the one true King of this world, and apply this knowledge to their personal and communal lives. Christians grow in maturity through their connection to Christ, who is the head and is all in all.
This post is the first in our series on Colossians.
Next post: We Always Thank God: Colossians 1:1-8
The Bible Project – Read Scripture: Colossians (https://youtu.be/pXTXlDxQsvc)
The Naked Bible Podcast – Colossians (https://nakedbiblepodcast.com)
N.T. Wright – Colossians and Philemon: Tyndale New Testament Commentary
N.T. Wright – Christian Hope in a Confusing World – Colossians 1:9-23 (https://youtu.be/ci-P0CLCiGM)
Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible – Colossians (https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/colossians/)