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Bible Commentaries

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary

- Colossians

by Dr. Robert Utley



A. Thank God for the heretics at Colossae; because of them Paul wrote this powerful letter. Remember that to understand the book, we must relate it to its historical setting. Paul's letters are called "occasional documents" because he was addressing local problems with universal gospel truths. The heresy at Colossae was an unusual mixture of Greek philosophy (Gnosticism) and Judaism.

B. The cosmic Lordship of Jesus (or to put it another way, Jesus as creator, redeemer, and Lord of all creation and its implications for Christian living) is the central theme (cf. Colossians 1:15-17). The Christology of this book is unsurpassed! Colossians forms the basic outline for Ephesians. Paul knew the heresy would spread in Asia minor. Colossians attacks the false teachings while Ephesians develops its central themes to prepare other churches for the coming heresy. The emphasis of Colossians is Christological while the emphasis of Ephesians is the unity of all things in Christ, who is Lord of all things.

C. Paul refutes legalism, both Jewish and Greek, in very powerful terms (Colossians 2:6-23). Taking this letter as a model, one wonders how Paul would address modern heresies. He surely would have engaged them!


A. Originally the city of Colossae was part of the kingdom of Pergamum within Phrygia. In 133 B.C. it was given to the senate of Rome.

B. Colossae was a large commercial center before Paul's day (cf. Heroditus' Histories VII:30 and Xenophon Anabasis Colossians 1:2:6).

1. The valley in which Colossae was located was the ancient Mediterranean world's leading producer of wool, especially black wool, and dyed wool, purple and scarlet. The volcanic soil produced excellent pasture land and the chalky water aided the dyeing process (Strabo, 13:4:14).

2. Volcanic activity (Strabo, 12:8:6) caused the city to be destroyed several times in its history; the latest time being A.D. 60 (Tacitus) or A.D. 64 (Eusebius).

C. Colossae was located on the Lycus River, a tributary of the Maeander River which ran by Ephesus, 100 miles downstream. In this one valley were several small cities where Epaphras started churches: Hierapolis (6 miles away) and Laodicea (10 miles away, cf. Colossians 1:2; Colossians 2:1; Colossians 4:13, Colossians 4:15-16) and Colossae.

D. After the Romans built their major east-west highway, Via Ignatia, which bypassed Colossae, it dwindled to almost nothing (Strabo). This was similar to what happened to Petra in the Trans-Jordan area of Palestine.

E. The city was made up mostly of Gentiles (Phyrgians and Greek settlers), but there were numerous Jews also. Josephus tells us that Antiochus III (223-187 B.C.) transported 2,000 Jews from Babylon to Colossae. Records show that by A.D. 76 11,000 Jewish males lived in the district of which Colossae was the capital.


A. There are two senders, Paul and Timothy (cf. Colossians 1:1). However, the main author is Paul; Timothy was sending his greeting as Paul's co-worker and possibly his scribe (amanuensus).

B. The ancient literature is unanimous that Paul the Apostle was the author:

1. Marcion (who came to Rome in A.D. 140's), the anti-Old Testament heretic, included it in his Pauline corpus.

2. It was listed with Paul's letters in the Muratorian Canon (a list of canonical books from Rome around A.D. 180-200)

3. Several early church fathers quote from it and identify Paul as author

a. Irenaeus (wrote A.D. 177-190)

b. Clement of Alexandria (lived A.D. 160-216)


A. The historical relationship between these two prison letters follows this outline

1. Epaphras (Colossians 1:7; Colossians 4:12; Philemon 1:23) was converted during Paul's Ephesian Campaign (Acts 19:0).

a. Epaphras took his new-found faith back to his home area, the Lycus River valley (cf. Colossians 4:12).

b. Epaphras started three churches: Hierapolis, Laodicea (cf. Colossians 4:13), and Colossae.

c. Epaphras asked Paul for advice on how to combat this merging of Christianity, Judaism, and Greek thought, which the heretics were teaching. Paul was imprisoned (cf. Colossians 4:3, Colossians 4:18) at Rome (early 60s).

2. False teachers advocated Greek metaphysics

a. Spirit and matter were co-eternal

b. Spirit (God) was good

c. Matter (creation) was evil

d. A series of aeons (angelic levels), especially in the writings of the Valentinians, existed between a good high God and a lesser god who formed matter

e. Salvation was based on knowledge of secret passwords which helped people progress through the angelic levels (aeons) to the high good God

B. The literary relationship between Paul's two letters

1. Paul heard of the heresy in these churches which he had never personally visited (cf. Colossians 1:7-8).

2. Paul wrote a hard-hitting letter in short, emotional sentences, directed at the false teachers. The central theme was the cosmic lordship of Jesus. This is known as Paul's letter to the Colossians.

3. Apparently, soon after writing Colossians, with time on his hands in prison, he developed the themes in the letter we know as Ephesians. He knew that this attempt to merge Greek thought and the gospel for the purpose of making Christianity "relevant" to Greek culture would spread to all the new churches in Asia Minor. Ephesians is characterized by long sentences and developed theological concepts (Colossians 1:3-14, Colossians 1:15-23; Colossians 2:1-10, Colossians 2:14-18, Colossians 2:19-22; Colossians 3:1-12, Colossians 3:14-19; Colossians 4:11-16; 6:13-20). It takes Colossians as a starting point and draws out its theological implications. Its central theme is the unity of all things in Christ, which is a contrast to the aeons (angelic levels) of incipient Gnosticism.

C. Related literary and theological structure

1. The basic structure

a. They have very similar openings

b. They each have a doctrinal section dealing primarily with Christ

c. Each has a practical section which emphasizes Christian lifestyle using the same categories, terms, and phrases

d. They have virtually identical closing verses. In Greek they share 29 consecutive words; Colossians adds only two additional words ("and fellow bond slave"). Compare Ephesians 6:21-22 with Colossians 4:7-9.

2. Exact words or short phrases

Ephesians 1:1c and Colossians 1:2aEphesians 1:4 and Colossians 1:22 Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:14; Ephesians 1:10 and Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 1:15 and Colossians 1:3-4; Ephesians 1:18 and Colossians 1:27Eph. 1:27 and Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 1:13; Ephesians 2:16 and Colossians 1:20; Ephesians 3:2 and Colossians 1:25; Ephesians 3:3 and Colossians 1:26, Colossians 1:27; Ephesians 4:3 and Colossians 3:14; Ephesians 4:15 and Colossians 2:19; Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10, Colossians 3:12, Colossians 3:14 Ephesians 4:31 and Colossians 3:8; Ephesians 5:3 and Colossians 3:5; Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5; Ephesians 5:6 and Colossians 3:6 Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5"faithful""holy and blameless""redemption. . .forgiveness""all things. . .heaven. . .earth""heard. . .love for all the saints""the riches of the glory""head. . .church""you were dead""reconcile. . .cross""stewardship" "mystery""unity""head" and "grow""put on . . .""anger" "wrath" "malice" "slander""immorality" "impurity" "greed""idolatry" (coveting)"the wrath of God""making the most of the time"

3. Exact phrases or sentences

Ephesians 1:1a and Colossians 1:1a

Ephesians 1:1b and Colossians 1:2a

Ephesians 1:2a and Colossians 1:2b

Ephesians 1:13 and Colossians 1:5

Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 2:13

Ephesians 2:5b and Colossians 2:13c

Ephesians 4:1b and Colossians 1:10a

Ephesians 6:21, Ephesians 6:22 and Colossians 4:7-9 (29 consecutive words except for "kai syndoulos" in Colossians)

4. Similar phrases or sentences

Ephesians 1:21 and Colossians 1:16

Ephesians 2:1 and Colossians 1:13

Ephesians 2:16 and Colossians 1:20

Ephesians 3:7a and Colossians 1:23d, 25a

Ephesians 3:8 and Colossians 1:27

Ephesians 4:2 and Colossians 3:12

Ephesians 4:29 and Colossians 3:8; Colossians 4:6

Ephesians 5:15 and Colossians 4:5

Ephesians 5:19, Ephesians 5:20 and Colossians 3:16

5. Theologically synonymous concepts

Ephesians 1:3 and Colossians 1:3; Ephesians 2:1, Ephesians 2:12 and Colossians 1:21; Ephesians 2:15 and Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 4:1 and Colossians 1:10; Ephesians 4:15 and Colossians 2:19; Ephesians 4:19 and Colossians 3:5; Ephesians 4:22, Ephesians 4:31 andColossians 3:8; Colossians 3:8 Ephesians 4:32 and Colossians 3:12-13; Ephesians 5:4 andColossians 3:8; Colossians 3:8 Ephesians 5:18 andColossians 3:16; Colossians 3:16 Ephesians 5:20 andColossians 3:17; Colossians 3:17 Ephesians 5:22 and Colossians 3:18; Ephesians 5:25 and Colossians 3:19; Ephesians 6:1 and Colossians 3:20; Ephesians 6:4 andColossians 3:21; Colossians 3:21 Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22; Ephesians 6:9 andColossians 4:1; Colossians 4:1 Ephesians 6:18 andColossians 4:2-4; Colossians 4:2-4 a prayer of thanksalienation from Godhostility of Lawworthy walkChrist's body growing to maturity from its Headsexual impurity"lay aside" sinsChristians kind to one anotherChristian speechfilling of Spirit = word of Christthanksgiving to God for all thingswives be subject to husbandshusbands love your wiveschildren obey your parentsfathers do not provoke childrenslaves obey mastersmasters and slavesPaul's request for prayer

6. Terms and phrases used in both Colossians and Ephesians which are not found in other Pauline literature

a. "fullness" (which was the Gnostic term for the angelic levels)

Ephesians 1:23 Ephesians 3:19 Ephesians 4:13 Colossians 1:19 Colossians 2:9 "the fullness of Him who fills all in all""be filled up to all the fullness of God""to the fullness of Christ""for all the fullness to dwell in Him""for in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells"

b. Christ as "Head" of the church

Ephesians 4:15; Ephesians 5:23 and Colossians 1:18; Colossians 2:19

c. "alienated"

Ephesians 2:12; Ephesians 4:18 and Colossians 1:21

d. "redeeming the time"

Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5

e. "rooted"

Ephesians 3:17 and Colossians 1:5

f. "the word of truth, the gospel"

Ephesians 1:13 and Colossians 1:5

g. "forbearing"

Ephesians 4:2 and Colossians 3:13

h. unusual phrasing and terms ("held together," "supply")

Ephesians 4:16 and Colossians 2:19

D. Summary

1. Over one third of the words in Colossians are also in Ephesians. It has been estimated that 75 of the 155 verses in Ephesians have a parallel in Colossians. Both claim Paul's authorship while in prison.

2. Both were delivered by Paul's friend Tychicus.

3. Both were sent to the same area (Asia Minor).

4. Both deal with the same Christological topic.

5. Both emphasize Christ as Head of the church.

6. Both encourage Christian living.

E. Major Points of Dissimilarity

1. The church is always local in Colossians but universal in Ephesians. This may be because of the circular nature of Ephesians.

2. Heresy, which is such a prominent feature of Colossians, is totally absent in Ephesians. However, both letters use characteristic Gnostic terms ("wisdom," "knowledge," "fullness," "mystery," "principalities and powers" and "stewardship").

3. The Second Coming is immediate in Colossians but delayed in Ephesians. The church was, and is, called to serve in a fallen world (Colossians 2:7; Colossians 3:21; Colossians 4:13).

4. Several characteristically Pauline terms are used differently. One example is the term "mystery." In Colossians the mystery is Christ (Colossians 1:26-27; Colossians 2:2; Colossians 4:3), but in Ephesians (Colossians 1:9; 5:32) it is God's previously hidden, but now revealed, plan for the unity of Gentiles and Jews.

5. Ephesians has several Old Testament allusions (Ephesians 1:22 -- Psalms 8:0; Ephesians 2:17-- Isaiah 57:19) (Ephesians 2:20 -- Psalms 118:22) (Ephesians 4:8 -- Psalms 68:18) (Ephesians 4:26 -- Psalms 4:4) Ephesians 5:15 -- Isaiah 26:19, Isaiah 51:17, Isaiah 52:1, Isaiah 60:1) (Ephesians 5:31 -- Genesis 2:24) (Ephesians 6:2-3 -- Exodus 20:12) (Ephesians 6:14 -- Isaiah 11:5, Isaiah 59:17) (Ephesians 6:15 -- Isaiah 52:7) but there are only one or two in Colossians, Colossians 2:3 -- Isaiah 11:2, and possibly Colossians 2:22 -- Isaiah 29:13.

F. Though very similar in words, phrases, and often outline, the letters also include unique concepts:

1. The Trinitarian blessing of grace, Ephesians 1:3-14

2. The grace passage, Ephesians 2:1-10

3. The merging of Jews and Gentiles into one new body, Ephesians 2:11-13

4. The unity and giftedness of the body of Christ, Ephesians 4:1-16

5. "Christ and the church" as the pattern for "husband and wife," Ephesians 5:22-33

6. The spiritual warfare passage, Ephesians 6:10-18

7. The Christological passage, Colossians 1:13-18

8. Human religious rituals and rules, Colossians 2:16-23

9. The theme of the cosmic significance in Christ in Colossians versus the theme of the unity of all things in Christ in Ephesians.

G. In conclusion, it seems best to follow A. T. Robertson and F. F. Bruce in asserting that Paul wrote both letters in close proximity and developed the thoughts of Colossians into his capstone presentation of truth, Ephesians.


A. The date of Colossians is linked to one of Paul's imprisonments (Ephesus, Philippi, Caesarea, or Rome). A Roman imprisonment best fits the facts of Acts.

B. Once Rome is assumed to be the place of imprisonment, the question arises-which time? Acts records that Paul was imprisoned in the early 60's. However, he was released and wrote the Pastoral letters (I & 2 Timothy and Titus) and was then rearrested and killed before June 9, A.D. 68 (the date of Nero's suicide), probably in A.D. 67.

C. The best educated guess for the writing of Colossians (Ephesians and Philemon) is Paul's first imprisonment, in the early 60's. (Philippians was the last of the prison letters, probably written toward the mid 60s.)

D. Tychicus, along with Onesimus, probably took the letters of Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon to Asia Minor. Later, possibly several years later, Epaphroditus, recovered from his physical illness, took the letter of Philippians back to his home church.

E. Possible chronology of Paul's writings following F. F. Bruce and Murry Harris with minor adaptations.

Book DatePlace of WritingRelation to Acts
1Galatians48Syrian AntiochActs 14:28; Acts 15:2
21 Thessalonians50CorinthActs 18:5
32 Thessalonians50Corinth
41 Corinthians55EphesusActs 19:20
52 Corinthians56MacedoniaActs 20:2
6Romans57CorinthActs 20:3
7-10Prison Letters
Colossiansearly 60'sRome
Philemonearly 60'sRome
Ephesiansearly 60'sRome
Philippianslate 62-63RomeActs 28:30-31
11-13Fourth Missionary Journey Ephesus (?)
1 Timothy63 (or later,Macedonia
Titus63 but before
2 Timothy64 A.D. 68)Rome


A. The church was apparently started by Epaphras (cf. Colossians 1:7, Colossians 1:8; Colossians 2:1; Colossians 4:12-13), who was probably converted by Paul at Ephesus (cf. Colossians 1:7-8 and compare Colossians 2:1). It was mostly made up of Gentiles (cf. Colossians 1:21; Colossians 3:7). Epaphras came to Paul in prison to report a problem with false teachers who taught a mixture of Christianity with Greek philosophy called Gnosticism (Colossians 2:8) and Jewish legalism (cf. Jewish elements, Colossians 2:11, Colossians 2:16, Colossians 2:17: 3:11; angel worship, Colossians 1:16; Colossians 2:15, Colossians 2:18 and asceticism Colossians 2:20-23). There was a very large Jewish community in Colossae which had become very Hellenistic. The essence of the problem centered around the person and work of Christ. The Gnostics denied that Jesus was fully man but affirmed that He was fully divine because of their eternal antagonistic dualism between matter and spirit. They would affirm His Deity but deny His humanity. They also denied His mediatorial preeminence. For them there were many angelic levels (aeons) between a good high god and humanity; Jesus, even though the highest, was only one of the gods. They also tended to be intellectually elite (cf. Colossians 3:11, Colossians 3:14, Colossians 3:16, Colossians 3:17) and emphasized a special exclusive secret knowledge (cf. Colossians 2:15, Colossians 2:18, Colossians 2:19) as the path to God instead of Jesus' atoning, vicarious sacrifice and mankind's repentant faith response to His free offer of forgiveness.

B. Because of this theological, philosophical atmosphere, the book of Colossians emphasizes

1. The uniqueness of the person of Christ and His finished work of salvation.

2. The cosmological ownership, reign and significance of Jesus of Nazareth - His birth, His teachings, His life, His death, His resurrection and His ascension! He is Lord of all!


Paul's purpose was to refute the Colossian heresy. To accomplish this goal, he exalted Christ as

1. the very image of God (Colossians 1:15) the Creator (Colossians 1:16)

2. the preexistent sustainer of all things (Colossians 1:17)

3. the head of the church (Colossians 1:18)

4. the first to be resurrected (Colossians 1:18)

5. the fullness of deity in bodily form (Colossians 1:19, Colossians 2:9)

6. the reconciler between God and mankind (Colossians 1:20-22)

Thus, Christ was completely adequate. Paul uses the title "Christ" 25 times in this short book! Believers "have been given fullness in Christ" (Colossians 2:10). The Colossian heresy was completely theologically inadequate to provide spiritual salvation. It was a hollow and deceptive philosophy (Colossians 2:8), lacking any ability to restrain the old sinful nature (Colossians 2:23).

A recurring theme in Colossians is the complete adequacy of Christ as contrasted with the emptiness of mere human philosophy. This adequacy is expressed in the cosmic Lordship of Jesus. He is owner, creator and sovereign over all things, visible and invisible (cf. Colossians 1:15-18).


A. Traditional Pauline openings

1. Identification with sender, Colossians 1:1

2. Identification with recipients, Colossians 1:2a

3. Greetings, Colossians 1:2b

B. The Supremacy of Christ (topics 1-10 taken from NKJV paragraph outline)

1. Faith in Christ, Colossians 1:3-8

2. The Preeminence of Christ, Colossians 1:9-18

3. Reconciliation in Christ, Colossians 1:19-23

4. Sacrificial service for Christ, Colossians 1:24-29

5. Not philosophy, but Christ, Colossians 2:1-10

6. Not legalism, but Christ, Colossians 2:11-23

7. Not carnality, but Christ, Colossians 3:1-11

8. Put on Christ, Colossians 3:12-17

9. Let Christ affect your home, Colossians 3:19-1

10. Let Christ affect your daily life, Colossians 4:2-6

C. Paul's messengers, Colossians 4:7-9

D. Paul's friends send their greetings, Colossians 4:10-14

E. Paul sends greetings, Colossians 4:15-17

F. Paul's closing in his own hand, Colossians 4:18


A. Most of our knowledge of this heresy comes from the Gnostic writings of the second century. However, the incipient ideas were present in the first century (Dead Sea Scrolls).

B. The problem at Colossae was a hybrid of Christianity, incipient Gnosticism, and legalistic Judaism.

C. Some stated tenets of Valentinian and Cerinthian Gnosticism of the second century:

1. Matter and spirit were co-eternal (an ontological dualism). Matter is evil, spirit is good. God, who is spirit, cannot be directly involved with molding evil matter.

2. There are emanations (aeons or angelic levels) between God and matter. The last or lowest one was YHWH of the Old Testament who formed the universe (kosmos).

3. Jesus was an emanation like YHWH but higher on the scale, closer to the true God. Some put Him as the highest but still less than God and certainly not incarnate deity (cf. John 1:14). Since matter is evil, Jesus could not have a human body and still be divine. He just appeared human, but was really a spirit (cf. 1 John 1:1-3; 1 John 4:1-6).

4. Salvation was obtained through faith in Jesus plus special knowledge, which is only known by certain persons of the group. Knowledge (passwords) was needed to pass through heavenly spheres. Jewish legalism was also required to reach God.

D. The Gnostic false teachers advocated two opposite ethical systems:

1. For some, lifestyle was totally unrelated to salvation. For them, salvation and spirituality were encapsulated into secret knowledge (passwords) through the angelic spheres (aeons).

2. For others, lifestyle was crucial to salvation. In this book, the false teachers emphasized an ascetic lifestyle as an evidence of true spirituality (cf. Colossians 2:16-23).

E. Some good reference materials:

The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas, published by Beacon Press

The Gnostic Scriptures by Bentley Layton, Anchor Bible Reference Library

The Dictionary of New Testament Background, IVP, "Gnosticism" pp. 414-417

READING CYCLE ONE (from "A Guide to Good Bible Reading")

This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Therefore, read the entire biblical book at one sitting. State the central theme of the entire book in your own words (reading cycle #1).

1. Theme of entire book

2. Type of literature (genre)

READING CYCLE TWO (from "A Guide to Good Bible Reading")

This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Therefore, read the entire biblical book a second time at one sitting. Outline the main subjects (reading cycle #2) and express the subject in a single sentence.

1. Subject of first literary unit

2. Subject of second literary unit

3. Subject of third literary unit

4. Subject of fourth literary unit

5. Etc.

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