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Holman Bible Dictionary

Colossians

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(coh lahss' ssihuhnss) A letter from Paul to the Church at Colosse. It is one of the Prison Epistles (along with Ephesians, Philemon, and Philippians). The traditional date and place of writing is A.D. 61 or 62 from Rome. The letter itself does not name the place where Paul was imprisoned, and Caesarea and Ephesus have been suggested as alternatives to Rome. If written from Ephesus, the time of writing would be in the mid-50's; if from Caesarea the late 50's. The primary purpose of Colossians was to correct false teachings which were troubling the church.

Authorship of Colossians The authenticity of Colossians has been debated, as has also the exact nature of the relationship between Ephesians and Colossians. In favor of Pauline authorship it may be noted that the letter was accepted as genuinely Pauline by the early church. While it is true that the style and vocabulary differ somewhat from Paul's other letters, this occurs primarily in the section which attacks the Colossian heresy (Colossians 1:3-2:23 ). The unusual terminology in this section is at least partly the result of addressing an unusual problem.

Some would rule out Pauline authorship by identifying the heresy attacked in Colossians as second century gnosticism. Such arguments are not convincing, however, because (1) the heresy cannot be identified with certainty, and (2) gnostic thought was already encroaching on the church by the middle of the first century.

One should note also the relationship between Philemon and Colossians. They mention many of the same people and were apparently carried by the same messenger (Colossians 4:7-18 ; Philippians 1:1-2 ,Philemon 1:1-2,1:10 ,Philemon 1:10,1:23-24 ). The undoubted authenticity of Philemon argues in favor of the Pauline authorship of Colossians as well.

The City of Colosse Colosse was located in the southwest corner of Asia Minor in what was then the Roman province of Asia. Hierapolis and Laodicea were situated only a few miles away. All three were in the Lycus River valley. A main road from Ephesus to the east ran through the region. See Asia Minor.

Colosse was prominent during the Greek period. By Paul's day it had lost much of its importance, perhaps due to the growth of the neighboring cities. Extremely detrimental to all of the cities of the region were the earthquakes which occasionally did severe damage. Shortly after Paul wrote Colossians, the entire Lycus Valley was devastated by an earthquake (about A.D. 61) which probably ended occupation of the city.

The region included a mixture of people native to the area, Greeks, Romans, and transplanted Jews. The church probably reflected the same diversity. As far as we know, Paul never visited Colosse. His influence was felt, however, during his ministry in Ephesus. (Acts 19:10 records that all Asia heard the gospel.) The letters to Philemon and to the Colossians indicate that many of Paul's fellow workers (if not Paul himself) had worked among the churches of the Lycus Valley. As a result, the relationship between the apostle to the Gentiles and the Colossian church was close enough that when trouble arose some of the church turned to Paul for instruction.

Content Colossians may be divided into two main parts. The first (Colossians 1:3-2:23 ) is a polemic against false teachings. The second (Colossians 3:1-4:17 ) is made up of exhortations to proper Christian living. The introduction (Colossians 1:1-2 ) is in the form of a Hellenistic, personal letter. The senders (Paul and Timothy) and the recipients (the Colossian church) are identified, and a greeting is expressed (the usual Pauline “grace and peace” replaced the usual secular “greeting”).

Typical of Paul, a lengthy thanksgiving (Colossians 1:3-8 ) and prayer (Colossians 1:9-14 ) lead into the body of the letter. Paul thanked God for the faith, hope, and love (Colossians 1:4-5 ) which the Colossians had by virtue of their positive response to the gospel. He prayed that they might have a full knowledge and understanding of God's will and lead a life worthy of redeemed saints, citizens of the kingdom of Christ (Colossians 1:9-14 ).

The doctrinal section which follows begins with a description of the grandeur of the preeminent Christ (Colossians 1:15-20 ). Though the precise meaning of some words and phrases is uncertain, there is no doubt as to Paul's intent. He meant to present Jesus as fully God incarnate (Colossians 1:15 ,Colossians 1:15,1:19 ), as supreme Lord over all creation (Colossians 1:15-17 ), as supreme Lord of the church (Colossians 1:18 ), and as the only Source of reconciliation (Colossians 1:20 ).

The origin of this grand statement on the nature and work of Christ is debated. The structure, tone, and vocabulary of the passage have led many to speculate that Colossians 1:15-20 is a doctrinal statement (hymn) that was in use in the church of Paul's day. This passage and Philippians 2:6-11 are thought by the majority of scholars to be the most obvious examples of pre-Pauline tradition in the letters of Paul. However, difficulty in recreating a balanced hymnic structure has convinced most that Paul rewrote portions of the hymn, if indeed he was not the author of the entire confession. Author or not, the apostolic stamp of approval is on these words which Paul used to state unambiguously that Christ is Lord and Savior of all.

The purpose of the first two chapters was to correct the false teaching which had infiltrated the church. The heresy is not identified, but several characteristics of the heresy are discernible: (1) An inferior view of Christ is combated in Colossians 1:15-20 . This Christological passage implies that the heretics did not consider Jesus to be fully divine or perhaps did not accept Him as the sole Source of redemption. (2) The Colossians were warned to beware of plausible sounding “philosophies” which were antichrist (Colossians 2:8 ). (3) The heresy apparently involved the legalistic observance of “traditions,” circumcision, and various dietary and festival laws (Colossians 2:8 ,Colossians 2:8,2:11 ,Colossians 2:11,2:16 ,Colossians 2:16,2:21 ; Colossians 3:11 ). (4) The worship of angels and lesser spirits was encouraged by the false teachers (Colossians 2:8 ,Colossians 2:8,2:18 ). (5)Asceticism, the deprivation or harsh treatment of one's “evil” fleshly body, was promoted (Colossians 2:20-23 ). Finally, (6) the false teachers claimed to possess special insight (perhaps special revelations) which made them (rather than the apostles or the Scriptures) the ultimate source of truth (Colossians 2:18-19 ).

Scholars cannot agree on who these false teachers were. Some of the characteristics cited above seem to be Jewish; others sound like gnostic teachings. Some see the teachings of a mystery religion here. Dozens of alternatives have been proposed by very capable authors. It is even argued that Paul was not attacking one specific heresy (or if he was, he did not have a clear understanding of it himself), but rather was warning the Colossians about a variety of false teachings which had troubled the church, or which might trouble it in the future. While the passage does not clearly identify the heretics, it does clearly state that Christ (not angels, philosophies, rituals, traditions, asceticism, nor anything else) is the Source of redemption.

Colossians 3:1-4 provides the link connecting the theology of Colossians 1:1 and Colossians 2:1 with the exhortations to live a Christian life in Colossians 3:1 and Colossians 4:1 . The command to “put to death” (Colossians 3:5 NIV) and to “rid yourselves of all such things” which will reap the wrath of God ( Colossians 3:5-11 ) is balanced by the command to “clothe yourselves with” (Colossians 3:12 NIV) those things characteristic of God's chosen people ( Colossians 3:12-17 ). The changes are far from superficial, however. They stem from the Christian's new nature and submission to the rule of Christ in every area of one's life (Colossians 3:9-10 ,Colossians 3:9-10,3:15-17 ).

Rules for the household appear in Colossians 3:18-4:1 . The typical first century household is assumed, thus the passage addresses wives and husbands, fathers and children, masters and slaves. Paul made no comment about the rightness or wrongness of the social structures; he accepted them as givens. Paul's concern was that the structures as they existed be governed by Christian principles. Submission to the Lord (Colossians 3:18 ,Colossians 3:18,3:20 ,Colossians 3:20,3:22 ; Colossians 4:1 ), Christian love (Colossians 3:19 ), and the prospect of divine judgment (Colossians 3:24-4:1 ) must determine the way people treat one another regardless of their social station. It is this Christian motivation which distinguishes these house rules from those that can be found in Jewish and pagan sources.

A final group of exhortations (Colossians 4:2-6 ) and an exchange of greetings (Colossians 4:7-17 ) bring the letter to a close. Notable in this final section are (1) the mention of Onesimus (Colossians 4:9 ), which links this letter with Philemon, (2) the mention of a letter at Laodicea (Colossians 4:16 ), which may have been Ephesians, and (3) Paul's concluding signature which indicates that the letter was prepared by an amanuensis (secretary) (Colossians 4:18 ).

Outline

I. Warnings Against Heresy (Colossians 1:1-2:23 )

A. Greeting, thanksgiving, and prayer (Colossians 1:1-14 )

B. Christ and no other is supreme in the universe (Colossians 1:15-17 ).

C. Christ, having reconciled all creation to God and embodying the fullness of God, is supreme in the church (Colossians 1:18-20 ).

D. Believers experience Christ's supremacy in the saving power of the gospel (Colossians 1:21-23 ).

E. The supreme Christ fulfills God's eternal saving purpose (Colossians 1:24-29 ).

F. Christians should have full confidence in Christ's supremacy and forget heretical teachings (Colossians 2:1-5 ).

G. Elemental human traditions must not lead away from faith in Christ (Colossians 2:6-10 ).

H. Legal practices cannot supplement Christ's work of salvation on the cross (Colossians 2:11-23 ).

II. The Supreme Rule of Christ Leads to Rules for Life with Christ (Colossians 3:1-4:18 ).

A. Believers seek the fullness of the new life in Christ (Colossians 3:1-4 ).

B. Life in Christ cleanses believers of old practices (Colossians 3:5-11 ).

C. The life in Christ gives power for unity, mutual love, and forgiveness (Colossians 3:12-14 ).

D. Church life includes mutual encouragement and worship (Colossians 3:15-17 ).

E. Life in Christ brings faithfulness and compassion in family relationships (Colossians 3:18-4:1 ).

F. Closing greetings and blessings for those in Christ (Colossians 4:2-18 )

Michael Martin


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Colossians'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/c/colossians.html. 1991.

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