The Book of Colossians

I. Title

       The title is taken from the name of the city that the letter was addressed to: Colosse.

II. Author and Setting

       The authors of the letter are Paul and Timothy, based on 1:1-2a:

       Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
       To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colosse:

       Colosse was a small and rather insignificant town in the Roman province of Asia, located on the south bank of the Lycus River. It was about a hundred miles from Ephesus and ten miles from Laodicea. It is thought that Paul probably evangelized Colosse and Laodicea during his extended ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:10); it is not a certainty, however, since the book of Acts does not even mention the city of Colosse. All that we really know about Paul's relationship to the city comes in this letter and the letter to Philemon.
       The letter was probably written from Rome, during Paul's first imprisonment there (see Acts 28:30-31) about AD 62.
       The writing of this letter to the Colossian church seems to have been occasioned by news of a heretical teaching in the church. From the points that Paul makes in his letter, certain elements of this heresy can be gleaned:

1. It professed to be a philosophy; Paul points out that it is a "hollow and deceptive" philosophy, in contrast to a true one (2:8)
2. It emphasized circumcision, dietary laws, and holy days (2:11, 14, 16, 17)
3. Affirmed the mediation of various supernatural powers in the creation of the world and in salvation that should be worshiped (2:15, 18, 19)
4. Some of the false teachers were ascetic (2:20-23)

       Curtis Vaughan, in addition to the Judaizing elements of this movement, argues that it apparently included elements that would later be known as Gnosticism.

       It sought by its oriental myths and Greek philosophy to absorb the various religions with which it came into contact. It lent itself to an air of exclusiveness, cultivating an "enlightened" elite for whom alone salvation was possible. Gnosticism, in all its forms, was characterized by belief in the evil of matter, in mediating beings, and in salvation through knowledge. Beginning with the assumption that all matter is evil, the Gnostics argued that god and matter were therefore antagonistic. Indeed, they contended that God didn't create this world and that he has absolutely no contact with it. However, intellectual necessity did not permit them to break completely the bond between divinity and the material world. They therefore taught that God put forth from himself a series of "aeons" or emanations, each a little more distant from him and each having a little less of deity. At the end of this chain of intermediate beings there is an emanation possessing enough of deity to make a world by removed far enough from God that his creative activities could not compromise the perfect purity of God. The world, they argued, was the creation of this lesser power, who being so far removed from God was both ignorant of and hostile to him. These "aeons" -- "offshoots of deity" Martin calls them -- were thought to inhabit the stars and rule man's destiny. They therefore were to be placated and worshiped. Paul's references to "thrones...powers...rulers...authorities" (2:15), and "worship of angels" (2:18) are allusions to these supposed intermediate beings.
       Belief in the inherent evil of matter made it impossible for the Gnostics to accept the real incarnation of God in Christ. Some of them explained it away by denying the actual humanity of Jesus, holding that he only seemed to be human. The body of Jesus, they taught was an illusion, a phantom, only apparently real. In their view, Christ was only one of many intermediaries between God and the world, but he was sufficiently related to God to share his abhorrence of any direct contact with matter. The advent of Christ "was a piece of play-acting when God wore a mask of humanity on the stage of human history, giving the appearance of being a man but really being still God-in-disguise." Other Gnostics explained away the incarnation by denying the real deity of Jesus. That is, they stopped short of making a complete identification of the man Jesus with the aeon Christ. Both these tendencies were perhaps present at Colosse in embryo form and both may be alluded to in the Epistle -- for example in the affirmation that "in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (2:9).
       Belief that matter is evil also lead to a distorted view of the Christian life. Some Gnostics turned to asceticism, others to libertinism. The ascetics felt that they had to free themselves from the influence of matter (the body) by inflicting punishment on their bodies. Those who gave in to license assumed an attitude of indifference to things physical and material, the idea being that only the soul is important and therefore the body may do what it pleases. Indications of both tendencies may be found in the Colossian letter, the former being opposed in 2:20ff. and the latter in 3:5ff.
       As its name would indicate, Gnosticism -- the word is related to gnosis, "knowledge" -- taught that salvation is obtained not through faith but through knowledge. The knowledge of which the Gnostics spoke, however, was knowledge acquired through mystical experience, not by intellectual apprehension. It was an occult knowledge, pervaded by the superstitions of astrology and magic. Moreover it was an esoteric knowledge, open only to those who had been initiated into the mysteries of the gnostic system. (Curtis Vaughan, "Colossians" The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 11. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978, pp. 166-167)

III. An Outline of Colossians

I. Introduction 1:1-14
II. The Supremacy of Christ 1:15-23
III. Paul's ministry 1:24-2:7
IV. Warning against error 2:8-23
V. Appeal for Christian living 3:1-4:6
VI. Conclusion 4:7-18

Questions on Colossians

1. When was the letter to the Colossians written?
2. Using Colossians 1:15-20, demonstrate the deity of Jesus. What other passages of Colossians may be useful for demonstrating this truth?
3. What does Paul have to say regarding the nature of our salvation? Does it depend on human regulations? Why or why not?
4. Reconcile Colossians 3 with salvation by grace. Does Paul contradict himself between chapters 2 and 3? Why or why not?
5. Discuss 3:18-4:1. What does this passage have to say about Christian relationships?
6. Compare Colossians 4:7-18 with Philemon. What is the relationship between the letter to Philemon and the letter to the Colossians?