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by Thomas Constable
The city of Colosse lay in the beautiful Lycus Valley about 100 miles east of Ephesus. It had been an important town during the Greek and Persian War of the fifth century B.C. Since then new trade routes had carried most traffic to its neighboring towns of Laodicea and Hierapolis and had left Colosse only a country village. Unlike Laodicea and Hierapolis, archaeologists have never excavated the site of Colosse. [Note: See James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, p. 21.] The inhabitants were mainly Greek colonists and native Phrygians when Paul wrote this epistle, though there were many Jews living in the area as well. Antiochus the Great (223-187 B.C.) had relocated hundreds of Jewish families from Mesopotamia to this region. They seem to have been more liberal Jews than those in the neighboring province of Galatia to the east.
"In the bordering province of Galatia the infant faith was threatened by legalism, a Judaizing heresy; here, as in Ephesus (cf. Act_19:14; Act_19:18), the danger lay in a Jewish-Hellenistic religious syncretism." [Note: E. Earle Ellis, "The Epistle to the Colossians," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 1333.]
"Without doubt Colossae was the least important church to which any epistle of St Paul is addressed." [Note: J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, p. 16.]
Churches had taken root in Colosse, Laodicea (Col_4:16), and probably Hierapolis (Col_4:13). Paul had not visited the Lycus Valley when he wrote this epistle (Col_1:4; Col_2:1), but he had learned of the spread of the gospel there through Epaphras (Col_1:8) and probably others. [Note: For a fuller history of Judaism and Christianity in the Lycus Valley, see F. F. Bruce, "Colossian Problems," Bibliotheca Sacra 141:561 (January-March 1984):3-15; and William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, pp. 111-14.]
Epaphras seems to have been the founder or one of the founders of the Colossian church (Col_1:7; Col_4:12-13). He was a Colossian and had instructed the Christians there (Col_1:7) and probably in Laodicea and Hierapolis. Perhaps Paul led him to Christ, maybe at Ephesus (cf. Act_19:10). His more formal name was probably Epaphroditus.
Epaphras may have traveled to Rome to meet with Paul to secure his help in combating the influence of false teachers that were preaching in Colosse. Archippus may have stood in for Epaphras during his absence (Col_4:17; Phm_1:2).
The only information available to help us reconstruct the heresy threatening the church comes from indirect allusions and the emphases in this epistle. We conclude that the false teachers were not giving the person and work of Christ proper interpretation or emphasis. They were distorting and minimizing these doctrines. The false teaching also contained a philosophic appeal, whether Oriental or Hellenistic we cannot be sure (Col_2:8). Notwithstanding there was an emphasis on higher knowledge of the cosmic order. There were also elements of Judaistic ritualism and traditionalism present (Col_2:8; Col_2:11; Col_2:16; Col_3:11). However, contrary to orthodox Judaism, the false teachers were encouraging the veneration of angels who they believed controlled the operations of nature to some degree (Col_2:18-19). There was an emphasis on ascetic self-denial (Col_2:20-23) and apparently the idea that only those with full knowledge of the truth as taught by the false teachers could understand and experience spiritual maturity (Col_1:20; Col_1:28; Col_3:11). These emphases later developed into Gnosticism, though in Colosse the Jewish emphasis was more prominent than in later Greek Gnosticism. [Note: See Curtis Vaughan, "Colossians," in Ephesians-Philemon, vol. 11 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pp. 166-68; Roy Yates, "Colossians and Gnosis," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27 (June 1986):49-68; H. Wayne House, "Heresies in the Colossian Church," Bibliotheca Sacra 149:593 (January-March 1992):45-59; P. T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, pp. xxx-xxxviii; Barclay, pp. 118-21; and Donald A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 523-25.] It is easy to see how such a cult could develop and gain adherents in the Greek-Jewish culture of the Lycus Valley.
". . . given . . . various factors . . ., including the probable origin of the Colossian church from within synagogue circles, the likely presence of Israelite sectarianism within the diaspora, the lack of other evidence of Jewish syncretism in Asia Minor, and the readiness of some Jews to promote their distinctive religious practices in self-confident apology . . ., we need look no further than one or more of the Jewish synagogues in Colossae for the source of whatever influences were thought to threaten the young church there." [Note: Dunn, p. 34.]
The primary purpose of the letter was clearly to combat this false teaching. The two main problems were the doctrine of Christ and how this doctrine affects Christian living. The primary Christological passages (Col_1:14-23; Col_2:9-15) present Christ as absolutely preeminent and perfectly adequate for the Christian. The Christian life, Paul explained, flows naturally out of this revelation. The Christian life is really the life of the indwelling Christ that God manifests through the believer.
Paul probably wrote this epistle from Rome toward the middle or end of his first house arrest there between A.D. 60 and 62. He experienced confinement though he enjoyed considerable liberty there for about two years. Many of Paul’s fellow workers were with him when he composed this epistle (Col_4:7-14). This view of the letter’s origin generally fits the facts better than the Caesarean and Ephesian theories of origin.
There are many similarities between Ephesians and Colossians. The major distinction between them is that in Ephesians the emphasis is on the church as the body of Christ. In Colossians the emphasis is on Christ as the head of the body. Also, Paul wrote Colossians primarily to respond to a particular problem, whereas he wrote Ephesians primarily to expound correct teaching. Stylistically Colossians is somewhat tense and abrupt whereas Ephesians is more diffuse and flowing. Colossians tends to be more specific, concrete, and elliptical while Ephesians is more abstract, didactic, and general. The mood of Colossians is argumentative and polemical, but that of Ephesians is calm and irenic. The former is a letter of discussion; the latter is a letter of reflection. [Note: Vaughan, p. 169.] Paul evidently wrote both letters about the same time. These two epistles, along with Philippians and Philemon, constitute the Prison Epistles of Paul. [Note: See S. Lewis Johnson Jr., "Studies in the Epistle to the Colossians," Bibliotheca Sacra 118:470 (July-September 1961):239-50, for another brief discussion of introductory matters including the theology of the epistle.]
Three purposes emerge from the contents of this epistle. Paul wanted to express his personal interest in this church, which he had evidently not visited. He wrote to warn the Colossians of the danger of returning to their former beliefs and practices. He also refuted the false teaching that was threatening this congregation. The outstanding Christian doctrine that this letter deals with is Christology. Paul’s great purpose was to set forth the absolute supremacy and sole sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
"The church today desperately needs the message of Colossians. We live in a day when religious toleration is interpreted to mean ’one religion is just as good as another.’ Some people try to take the best from various religious systems and manufacture their own private religion. To many people, Jesus Christ is only one of several great religious teachers, with no more authority than they. He may be prominent, but He is definitely not preeminent.
"This is an age of ’syncretism.’ People are trying to harmonize and unite many different schools of thought and come up with a superior religion. Our evangelical churches are in danger of diluting the faith in their loving attempt to understand the beliefs of others. Mysticism, legalism, Eastern religions, asceticism, and man-made philosophies are secretly creeping into churches. They are not denying Christ, but they are dethroning Him and robbing Him of His rightful place of preeminence." [Note: Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, 2:105.]
I. Introduction Col_1:1-14
A. Salutation Col_1:1-2
B. Thanksgiving Col_1:3-8
C. Prayer Col_1:9-14
II. Explanation of the person and work of Christ Col_1:15-29
A. The preeminent person of Christ Col_1:15-20
1. In relation to God the Father Col_1:15 a
2. In relation to all creation Col_1:15-17
3. In relation to the church Col_1:18-20
B. The reconciling work of Christ Col_1:21-29
1. As experienced by the Col_1:21-23
2. As ministered by Paul Col_1:24-29
III. Warnings against the philosophies of men ch. 2
A. Exhortation to persevere in the truth Col_2:1-7
1. Paul’s concern Col_2:1-5
2. Paul’s exhortation Col_2:6-7
B. The true doctrine of Christ Col_2:8-15
C. The false doctrines of men Col_2:16-23
IV. Exhortations to practical Christian living Col_3:1 to Col_4:6
A. The basic principle Col_3:1-4
B. The proper method Col_3:5-17
1. Things to put off Col_3:5-11
2. Things to put on Col_3:12-17
C. The fundamental relationships Col_3:18 to Col_4:1
1. Wives and husbands Col_3:18-19
2. Children and parents Col_3:20-21
3. Slaves and masters Col_3:22 to Col_4:1
D. The essential practice Col_4:2-6
V. Conclusion Col_4:7-18
A. The bearers of this epistle Col_4:7-9
B. Greetings from Paul’s companions Col_4:10-14
C. Greetings to others Col_4:15-17
D. Paul’s personal conclusion Col_4:18
Norman Geisler’s outline of Colossians is also helpful. [Note: Norman L. Geisler, "Colossians," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, pp. 668-69.]
I. Doctrinal: Deeper life in Christ Col_1:1 to Col_2:7
II. Polemical: Higher life in Christ Col_2:8-23
III. Spiritual: Inner life in Christ Col_3:1-17
IV. Practical: Outer life in Christ Col_3:18 to Col_4:18
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the Second Week of Advent