Introduction to Colossians
General background to the letter
This letter was written to the Church in Colosse – a city of the Roman Empire, located in what is now modern Turkey. The author is the apostle Paul (Colossians 1:1), and it is likely he wrote this letter towards the end of his first imprisonment in Rome in AD60-61 (Colossians 4:4). Paul was under house arrest while awaiting trial, and his colleague Tychicus probably carried the letter to Colosse (Colossians 4:7) along with the letter to the Ephesians.
Colosse & the church
Colosse was a city on a rocky ridge overlooking the Lycus river valley (now silted up). The city was located on the major East West trading route from Ephesus on the Agean sea in the East, to the Euphrates river in the West. Colosse had been a large and important trading town noted for glossy black wool that was grown by shepherds in nearby hill country. However, the city had been in decline for some time, and the nearby towns of Laodicea and Hierapolis (10 and 16 miles away respectively) and long since become more powerful and important.
Paul had never visited the town, but Epaphrus had been converted during Paul’s time in Ephesus, and it was he who had taken the gospel to Colosse and founded the church there (Colossians 1:7-8). The people who lived here were a mixture of nationalities and cultures. Greeks had settled there from the West, Jews from the East, and alongside both groups were the original peoples (Hittites, Phrygian, Celts). Throughout the letter Paul spoke to people with a pagan past (Colossians 1:12-13, 1:21, 1:27, 2:13, 3:5-7) and it seems likely that the majority of church members were Gentile converts.
As different pressures pushed against the church it would have been easy for these young converts to become confused, and they may have begun to believe that there was something extra that they needed to be fully Christian. Epaphrus saw what was happening and travelled to Rome in order to talk with Paul about this situation. His conversation with Paul led to the writing of this letter.
What was the problem in Colosse?
Throughout this letter Paul did not directly identify either the false teaching, or the false teachers. So we must make an educated guess as to what the heresy was, based on what Paul wrote and our knowledge of the situation in Colosse.
Many church members were Gentile converts, and they would have grown up with a mystical religious background. If false teachers had arrived with the promise of a new mystical knowledge of God that could be found, they would have been entranced by it.
There is also the possibility that Jewish Christians were teaching that in order to be fully Christian, you must become a Jew. Judaism was attractive to people who had grown up with a confused and amoral religious background, and it would have been easy for the young converts to become convinced that they needed to adopt Jewish ceremonies and laws in order to be saved. These types of false teaching are indicated from what Paul wrote in the letter. Paul wrote about religious rules and festivals (Colossians 2:11, 2:16-17, 2:21, 2:23, 3:11), he commented on secret knowledge (Colossians 2:2-3, 2:18) and he warned against relying on human tradition and wisdom (Colossians 2:4, 2:8).
It is very likely that the danger facing the church was a merging of Jesus into the local landscape, accepting Him alongside the other religious and philosophical ideas of the day. This had the effect of reducing the importance of Jesus and emphasising other things, for example: Special knowledge, religious festivals, food laws, circumcision.
Paul’s response to the problem
Paul’s solution was to lift Jesus up and explain that He was the centre and meaning of everything. Paul exalted Jesus as the image of the living God (Colossians 1:15), the first to be resurrected (Colossians 1:18), the fullness of the deity in human form (Colossians 1:19, 2:9), the head over every power and authority (Colossians 2:10), and the reconciler of sinful man to a holy God (Colossians 1:20-22). Paul showed us that Jesus Christ is completely adequate, and then affirmed that we have been given fullness in Christ (Colossians 2:10).
On the other hand the false teachers’ teaching was hollow and deceptive (Colossians 2:8), judgmental (Colossians 2:16), full of harsh regulations (Colossians 2:20-23) and it lacked the ability to restrain the sinful nature (Colossians 2:23). Paul’s argument was simple – Jesus is all we need in every area of our lives. We will never need anything or anyone else besides Him.
Content of the letter
Paul lifted up Christ and explained that He is pre-eminent in creation, redemption, the church and our personal lives.
God’s plan of redemption is a key theme of the letter. In Christ we have forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:14), through His blood we are reconciled to God (Colossians 1:20, 22) and the cross has cancelled the Old Testament law with its harsh and unobtainable regulations (Colossians 2:14). As we have died to the way that this world works (Colossians 2:20) and have been raised together with Christ, we should now set our hearts and minds to seek things above (Colossians 3:1-2). In order to do this we have a responsibility to decide to turn away from our old nature and to put on our Godly nature (Colossians 3:5-17).
Paul then discussed how we should relate to one another and live out this new life which Jesus has won for us (Colossians 3:18 – 4:18).
Why should I read this letter?
We live in a world which is constantly tempting us to look to things other than Jesus to satisfy us and give meaning to our lives today, and security for us after we die. Money, possessions and personal success are the goal of many people today, while mystical religions, spirit worship and other Gods all claim to be able to give us eternal purpose and reason for being. The central place of Jesus – our God, our Creator, Our Saviour, our Hope – has been completely destroyed in the minds of millions of people alive today.
We need to read Colossians because this book brings us back to the truth that Jesus Christ is the centre of everything, and the reason why we are alive. He is the reason why we are significant, and He alone offers us release from our sins and freedom to be the marvellous people we were created to be, both now in this world, and after we die in heaven.
Jesus is what life is all about.
He loves us more than His own life. He died on the cross to pay the punishment for our sins. He gives meaning, purpose and significance to our lives today. He credits us with His righteousness when we believe in Him. By this righteousness we can enter heaven, to the place that He has already prepared for us.
Jesus Christ is everything that we will ever need.