Each book in the Bible has a theme and purpose. For example:
- The Book of Genesis tells the story of the creation and the beginnings of the human race.
- The Book of Jeremiah records the warnings of the destruction to come on Jerusalem.
- The Gospel of Matthew shows the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah according to the Old Testament.
- The Gospel of John does the same but for a Greek audience.
- The Book of Acts recounts the story of the establishment of the early church.
- The Epistle to the Romans is the major thesis on the basic doctrines of Christianity.
- The Epistle to the Galatians was written as a defense of the Gentiles' right to be free in Christ and part of the church.
- The Epistle to the Ephesians was written as an appeal to Gentile Christians to accept their Jewish brethren and strive for unity in the church.
I could go on but as you can see, every book had its purpose and message for the reader - The Epistle to the Colossians was no exception.
The Colossian epistle was written as a doctrinal statement concerning the deity and all sufficiency of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Background - Author, Paul the Apostle
Before we begin the reading and study of the text, we need to look at the background and context for the letter that Paul sent to this church. A good way of doing this is by reviewing a timeline of the life and ministry of Paul, the author of this epistle.
Paul's Ministry - 32 AD - 67 AD
32-34 AD - Paul was born in Tarsus, educated in Jerusalem, served as a Pharisee and as a special envoy of the Jewish religious leaders. He was converted while persecuting Christians near Damascus. He preached in this area and spent time in the Arabian Desert before entering Christian ministry.
35 AD - He tried to associate with the Apostles but was rejected out of fear for his past violence against Christians. He was then introduced by Barnabas and subsequently accepted by the leaders in the church at Jerusalem.
36-42 AD - He returned to his hometown to preach and teach.
42-44 AD - He was recruited by Barnabas to work in Antioch (Northern Israel) as a teacher. This church was the first "mixed" (Jewish and Gentile members) congregation. Paul, a Roman citizen as well as a Jew, was well equipped to work with a mixed group.
44 AD - He served with a group collecting funds to help the poor in Jerusalem.
45-57 AD - He was chosen by God and sent by the church in Antioch to preach to the Jews and Gentiles outside of Israel. He completed three major journeys through the Roman Mediterranean Empire in twelve years.
58-60 AD - He was detained in Caesarea for two years awaiting the outcome of hearings based on accusations of sedition by Jewish religious leaders. He has three hearings before a series of local rulers, and ultimately appeals for a hearing before Caesar in Rome in order to avoid further detainment or plots by the Jews to kill him.
60-61 AD - He has a disastrous trip by sea that ends in shipwreck, but Paul and the crew are saved. He eventually arrives in Rome and is placed under house arrest.
61-63 AD - Ultimately Paul was moved to a prison in Rome while awaiting his trial/hearing before Caesar in order to defend himself against charges of insurrection and conspiracy. While he was imprisoned he received many visitors and fellow workers whom he taught and directed. He was even successful in evangelizing many among the servants and guards in Caesar's household - Philippians 4:22.
63 AD - It seems that after these two years he did plead his case and won his release.
64-66 AD - In some of his letters Paul had mentioned that his plan was to return to Jerusalem with the special collection of funds, go back to Rome to strengthen the church there and then push on to Spain in order to open up new frontiers for the Gospel.
There is some evidence in the non-biblical writings of the time that he may have done this when freed from prison the first time.
Some say, however, that after his arrest in Jerusalem and imprisonment in Rome for two years, his plans changed.
He did not go to Spain during his brief time of freedom. References from his epistles describe a different course of action after his release. For example there is evidence that:
- He spent time in Crete - Titus 1:5
- He went to Ephesus - I Timothy 1:3
- He travelled to Corinth - II Timothy 4:20
- He stopped at Troas - II Timothy 4:13
- He went to Miletus - II Timothy 4:20
We could make a case for the fact that he used his time of freedom to encourage established churches.
I Timothy and Titus are letters that suggest that Paul was free and actively working with these preachers and others in his ministry of strengthening established churches.
Some scholars believe that after his first imprisonment in Rome, 64-66 AD, Paul was active in strengthening these churches and it is believed that it was during this time that he wrote the first letter to Timothy and the letter to Titus.
A great turning point in Paul's life and ministry as well as the progress of the church occurred in 64 AD. This is the year that Nero burned down the city of Rome. Nero was a great builder and he secretly began the fire in order to make way for a newer and more glorious city that he would rebuild according to his plan. He was also a fiddle player and historians record that he played out of the sheer joy that this destruction gave him.
Of course to divert blame from himself, he accused Christians of setting the fire because everyone knew that Christians considered Rome to be a wicked place - they had motive. The Bible does not mention Nero as the persecutor of the church even though this trouble is the background of at least two epistles: II Timothy and I Peter.
We get information about this persecution from the Roman historian, Tacitus, who knew about Nero's involvement and false accusations of Christians. He knew that Christians of that time were an easy target because they were without influence and mostly despised by the pagan citizens of Rome.
Nero accused them of setting the fire and ordered their persecution. Multitudes of Roman Christians were arrested and put to death in cruel ways:
- Some were crucified.
- Some had animal skins tied to them and were thrown in with wild dogs.
- Some were simply placed in the arena with wild animals to be killed.
- Nero would even take some and impale them on stakes, pour tar over them and use them as human torches to light the imperial gardens.
67 AD - It was during this period of persecution that Paul was rearrested, not at the insistence of angry Jews, but as a recognized leader of a religious group who had allegedly burned down the city of Rome.
It was during this second and final imprisonment that Paul wrote his last epistle to Timothy (II Timothy).
Paul knew that with this second imprisonment he had little hope of release, so he encouraged Timothy to come and visit him in Rome before winter.
We believe that Paul was finally executed in Rome (beheaded) in the period between 66 and 67 AD.
Background - Letter to the Colossians
Now that we have some information about Paul's activities from around 32 AD to his death in 67 AD, we can situate the letter he wrote to the Colossian brethren. This particular letter was written by Paul between 61 and 63 AD during his first imprisonment in Rome.
We know that Paul is the author because he names himself in the first verse. This letter was universally accepted by the early church as an authentic letter from Paul. We also know that Paul had originally written the Colossians a previous letter about John Mark but this letter no longer exists (4:10).
It seems that one of Paul's associates, Epaphroditus, had come to Rome with a gift for Paul from the Philippian church, and while he was there he informed the Apostle of a dangerous heresy brewing in his home congregation of Colossae.
Philemon verse 23 tells us that Epaphroditus was also detained for a while with Paul but later released and given a letter to take back to the Philippians thanking them for their gift.
In the meantime, after Epaphroditus' departure, Paul writes three other letters to churches and people about different matters.
- One to the Colossians regarding the false teaching and heresy that they are dealing with.
- One to Philemon concerning a runaway slave Onesimus whom Paul had converted in prison and was sending back home to his master.
- One to the church in Ephesus that was experiencing problems of unity and fellowship.
These letters were sent by the hand of two other helpers, Tychicus and of course, Onesimus, the converted slave (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7-9) It seems that Philemon was a member of the church at Colossae and Tychicus was there also. This is where the converted slave Onesimus returned to as well for both are mentioned in Colossians 4:7-9. Tychicus is also mentioned as the messenger bringing Paul's letter to the Ephesians. And so, while in prison in Rome between 61 and 63 AD, Paul wrote several epistles, one of which was addressed to the brethren at Colossae and delivered by Tychicus.
Background - Colossae
(Modern Day Central Turkey)
In 500 BC, Colossae had been a city of importance, especially as a trade center, but by New Testament times it had lost its strategic importance to the city of Ephesus that was 100 miles to the west and closer to the sea and shipping traffic.
By Paul's time, it had lost its prestige and was extremely decadent. The language of Paul's letter suggests that he had not been there personally (2:1), but Epaphroditus, who was from that region, had established the church there.
There was a period when Paul spent a long time in Ephesus (Acts 19) and sent out Timothy and Epaphroditus to evangelize the surrounding area. Colossae may have been established during this evangelistic outreach.
An interesting footnote about Colossae was that it was in the region of Phrygia and Luke records that on the day of Pentecost there were Phrygians present hearing Peter's sermon (Acts 2:10). Some of these may have been converted then and brought back the faith with them into the region.
Content and Reason for the Letter
The heresy that occasioned the writing of this letter was a mixture of ideas from Greek philosophy, oriental religions and Jewish traditions. It was being presented as a "higher thought" cult and promoted as a new philosophy for Christianity. Some of its features included:
- A call to worship angels as intermediaries between God and man (2:18)
- It insisted on the observation of Jewish customs and laws to the point of asceticism.
- It assumed that its teaching was a superior form of doctrine than what was presently or had been previously taught by the apostles or their disciples.
In response to these false ideas, Paul writes a letter to the Colossians, not as an effort to debate them, but simply an opportunity of presenting the person of Christ to them once again. Paul presents Jesus with all of His divine attributes, and permits his readers to form their own conclusions between the teachings concerning Jesus of the gospel and the doctrine taught by the false teachers among them.
His objective was to show that Jesus and His teachings were pre-eminent (first and superior) in every area of life and spiritual knowledge - including this "so-called" higher knowledge.
This is a basic outline for the book and the order in which we will be studying it.
- Salutation - 1:1-2
- Christ: Preeminent in Personal Relationships - 1:3-29
- Christ: Preeminent in Doctrine - 2:1-3:4
- Christ: Preeminent in Ethics - 3:5-4:1
- Conclusion and Greetings - 4:2-18