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Bible Commentaries

People's New Testament


- Colossians

by Barton Johnson


At least three Epistles, and probably four, were prepared about the same time by the Apostle Paul at his place of imprisonment in Rome, and sent by the same messengers to the Roman Province of Asia. One was the Epistle to the Ephesians; a second, the present letter; a third, the Epistle to Philemon, who was a resident of Colosse; and the fourth is alluded to in this Epistle (Colossians 4:16) as the Epistle to the Laodiceans, but has been thought by some to be identical with the Ephesian letter. Three cities are named in this Epistle which lay contiguous to each other in the bounds of the ancient Kingdom of Phrygia, but in the last half of the first century were embraced within the proconsular Province of Asia, of which Ephesus was the capital, which had Christian congregations, and two of these were honored with Epistles (Colossians 4:13). The ruins of these cities have been identified, and the close association of Colosse and Laodicea is witnessed by the fact that they were only a few miles apart on opposite sides of the valley of the Lycus, a short distance above where it enters into the larger river Meander.

Colosse was a city of considerable size more than four hundred years before the date of this letter, when visited by Xenophon as the Ten Thousand marched up into Central Asia, and is mentioned by Herodotus still earlier. At this time, however, it was overshadowed in importance by Laodicea, and at the present the ruins are less imposing than those of either Laodicea or Hierapolis.

We learn in the Sixteenth Chapter of Acts that Paul, on his second missionary journey, passed from Cilicia through the pass in the great Taurus chain of mountains, which has always been the highway from the coast to the interior; paused a little while in Lydia; took Timothy in his train of attendants, and then passed through Phrygia and Galatia. And, a second time, after his European tour, he returned and "went over all the country of Phrygia and Galatia, strengthening the disciples" (Acts 18:23). Yet it is probable that he did not personally plant the gospel in Colosse, and possibly did not even pass through the valley of the Lycus. The words of Colossians 2:1, are understood to mean that he had never met with the church in person, and indeed there is a marked difference between the tone of this letter and the familiar personal appeals of letters addressed to churches that he had certainly planted, like those of Philippi and Galatia.

Besides, Epaphras seems to be named (Colossians 1:7) as the founder, or at least the evangelist, of the church. Yet, since Epaphras must have been one of his own converts, and was working under his general supervision, Paul held himself responsible for its condition, and looked after its welfare, as after all the churches planted within the sphere of his labors.

It is easy to discover from certain portions of the letter why it was written. Phrygia was a sort of border land between religions. The light, joyous polytheism of the Greeks here met the deep, solemn mysticism of the East. In addition, large colonies of Jews had been transplanted from Babylon to this region by one of the Macedonian monarchs of Syria, and brought with them a Judaism which had been greatly modified by the doctrines of Zoroaster. The Epistle gives us ample ground for concluding that there was danger of these mongrel philosophies corrupting the simplicity of the gospel of Christ, and that Paul's object was to fortify the church against doctrine which would result in evil. In the notes of the passages which refer to these doctrines, this will be discussed more at length.

While there is a marked difference between this Epistle and that to the Ephesians, there is in some portions a striking similarity. Indeed there is not only a parallelism in the thoughts, but often in the language. The most natural way to account for this is to bear in mind that the two letters were written at the same time; were written to the same part of the world to congregations surrounded by conditions which were in many respects similar, and whose spiritual needs would be much alike. Under such circumstances it would be strange if two letters from the same writer did not bear a strong resemblance. It would be interesting to call attention to these parallel or similar passages, but the limited space the plan of this work allows will not permit. One who is curious to follow this comparison will find it given in full in Paley's Horae Paulinae.

Concerning the genuineness of this Epistle, it has always had a place in the New Testament Canon, and has never been questioned except by Baur, and some other critics of the Tubingen school who have thought that it gave too high an exaltation to Christ. This might be answered by replying that it exalts Christ no more than Philippians and other Epistles which are conceded to be of Pauline origin. Their theories have been overthrown not only by historical arguments, but by the internal evidence of the Epistle itself. Indeed, as Meyer remarks, "the forging of such an Epistle as this would be far more wonderful than its genuineness."

It was written at Rome, during Paul's imprisonment, probably in A. D. 62, the same date as Ephesians and Philemon, and was sent to the church by the hands of Tychicus (Colossians 4:7) and Onesimus (Colossians 4:9).