The story of the letter
Every book of the Bible speaks of the same God differently, highlighting different aspects of theology. Colossians is rich in its Christological focus. One scholar says, “Colossians is one of Paul’s most elegant yet compact epistles in the New Testament.” The letter speaks of Christ as Lord over all creation, even including the invisible realm. Christ has also obtained redemption for his people, uniting them in his death, resurrection, and fullness.
There are many questions that I have when I read the Bible that I know will only get answered when I cross the river and met my Savior on the other side in the celestial city. One of those questions or topics will be able to the book of Colossians. The letter is under 1600 words in Greek and 2000 in English. However, the content is filled with rich Christological theology that shows the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ over creation, redemption, and sanctification. Most of the questions would be about Epaphras (Col 1:7, 4:12-13; Phm 23).
Interestingly Paul never went to Colossae on any of his missionary trips. He never met the church face to face (Col 2:1). One can only speculate on this side of heaven, but I imagine Paul preaching and teaching during his time at Ephesus for over three years (Acts 19:1-20:1). After being confronted with unbelief in the synagogues, he withdrew and began teaching daily in the school (ESV; hall) of Tyrannus. Colossae is roughly 100 miles east of Ephesus in Phrygia on the southern bank of the river Lycus (modern Turkey), and its fertile valley produced abundant crops of figs and olives. In this valley in Asia stood three cities; Laodicea, Hierapolis, and the smallest Colossae. Again speculation, but maybe a young man, Epaphras made the journey to the port of Ephesus, even possibly with Onesimus both working for Philemon. After they had dropped off their goods at the port, they passed by the School of Tyrannus and saw the crowd. They edged closer to hear what the teacher was teaching about.
He spoke of a man, but not like any other man. His name was Jesus Christ. Many residents of Ephesus, both Jews, and Greeks were struck with fear, and the name of Jesus was extolled (Acts 19:17). In this group of people, maybe, stood Epaphras, who was persuaded by Paul that ‘gods made with hands are not gods (Acts 19:26). The leaders feared that the temple worship of Artemis might be counted as nothing, and many people in Asia would come into the port town and worship her (Acts 19:27). Maybe another reason Epaphras was traveling to Ephesus. However, Epaphras, a local of Colossae, became a faithful minister of Christ and proclaimed the grace of God in truth, and the locals of Colossae understood this grace of God (Col 1:6-8).
Years later, Paul, while in Rome (~62 AD), in prison heard of this church from Epaphras who is also in prison (Phm 23). You could imagine the conversation in the prison cell about how Epaphras’ church plant to an established church. What a blessing that would have been on Paul’s old ears to hear that the seeds sown in Ephesus about ten years ago were carried to a small city and grew fruit found in Philemon, Onesimus, and Epaphras. We have little information about the details, but we have enough to connect some dots. I am looking forward to finding out the answers to these questions in heaven.
When studying an epistle of the Bible, it is always essential to understand four headings as you being to read the letter, as much as possible. The four headings are; 1) Author (who wrote the book), 2) Audience (Who did the author write the book to), 3) Aspirations (Why did they write the book) and 4) Application (What does the author want the audience to do with this letter). This is quite simplistic, and sometimes it is difficult to get all the answers, e.g., Who wrote Hebrews?
Paul wrote Colossians when in Roman imprisonment (62AD). Timothy is also mentioned in the greeting. Timothy probably served as Paul’s secretary (amanuensis). Some scholars have questioned Paul’s authorship in the past fifty years because of the style of writing and some sets of theological statements. These claims are easily disputed. In Colossians, there are 425 single words used; of these words, twenty-eight are found only in Ephesians and Colossians, and eighteen are only found in Colossians. However, unique words do not imply different authors. The theology remains the same. Even for myself, throughout devotionals I write, the terminology and phrases will vary greatly depending on the topic and my thoughts. I heard a story of a scholar who took this approach of unique words, equals different authors, and applied it to Winne the Pooh books. He concluded (satirically) that there had to have been at least six authors.
As stated earlier, Paul never went to Colossae and never met many of the Church face to face (Col 2:1). The church is most likely made up of Greeks, from the names in the final greetings (Col 4:7-18). The city once stood with high merchant importance called the “great city in Phrygia (the Region).” However, it slowly dwindled considerably in size and significance. Colossae was struck with an earthquake around the time the letter was written in the 60’s AD. The city was rebuilt without aid from the Roman empire and never grew back to its glory days. Eventually, the city would be destroyed in about the 12th C. Interestingly, the Lord used Paul, carried along by the Spirit (2 Pet 1:21), to pen Colossians. Paul wrote another letter to the Laodiceans, but we do not know what that says, but we have Colossians a letter to a smaller city (Col 4:16).
One of the most significant debates in the Scholarly world is about the ‘Colossian Heresy.’ Much ink has been spilled over trying to work out the reason and issue Paul is addressing in the letter to the Colossians. Some arguments believe the heresy is rooted in Greek philosophy (Col 2:8); others believe it comes from Jewish tradition (Col 2:16-19). Some fall in the middle explaining the Colossae heresy is a fusion of religious influences (syncretism), mixing both Greek and Jewish philosophy and traditions. Some scholars even argue that there is no Colossian heresy. Ultimately, we should be cautious between reading between the lines and emphasizing what is not said and giving it theological weight. This is called ‘mirror-reading.’ IF a statement is made, then we assume it is combating the opposite claim. It is useful but needs to know the limitations because you over-read what is not said than what is said. We need to emphasize what the Bible emphasizes. Our exegesis can take this with a grain of salt, but since we do not know exactly, we should be cautious placing our eggs in one basket. I think the heresy is a mix between Greek Philosophy and Jewish traditions. However, the percent of each is difficult to understand.
The Colossian heresy looks at what the false teaching Paul was trying to address; however, the remedy is Christ. Hence the Christological emphasis in the letter to the Colossians. Paul explains why he wrote Colossians 2:1-3 (ESV),
“For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of the full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
We will look at the Mystery of Christ more in detail as we proceed through this study, so as you read through the letter, I want you to consider this term and thought.
Paul writes this book to point people to Christ, to his preeminence and sufficiency. You can have Christ and have all that you need. But if you seek to have all that you want and leave Christ out of the equation, then you will have nothing. Paul exhorts the Colossians to “Walk in Him.”
“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” Colossians 2:6-7 (ESV)
He encourages the faithful saints in the Family of God to walk in Christ (Col 1:2 cf Col 2:6-7). Rooted and built up in him. We might not have the Colossian heresy in our midst in the 21st century. However, we are always at risk of diluting our need for Christ and placing other idols equal to or above Christ. We consider Christ is not sufficient for us and seek to be satisfied with the different pleasures and needs of this world. Christ is preeminent and sufficient, and we always need this reminder in our lives. And even as a small church, we are reminded that God uses his church to extend his kingdom throughout the world. We have the letter to the Colossians, not the letter to the Laodiceans. My prayer as your pastor echoes the prayer of Epaphras in Colossians 4:12b, “struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” I pray as we study the book of Colossians that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. That you may look only unto Christ as Lord over all creation, even including the invisible realm. That you may take hold of Christ securing your redemption for his people, uniting them in his death, resurrection, and fullness.