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Paul's Epistle to the Colossians


There is an episode in church history where a pastor had to make a tough decision because he faced a problem in his congregation. They were being distracted and confused by a strange combination of ideas that had become very dominant within the culture out of which they were saved. These ideas held them back in terms of their own spiritual life and still provided a basic temptation for them and this young pastor didn't quite know how to handle the circumstances as this teaching that surrounded them seemed to have more and more of an attraction for people in his congregation. Like many pastors he needed advice, he needed some continuing education, and he needed to meet with some more experienced pastors. So he made the decision to leave and to go and spend time with some of these other pastors and with his mentor. It was not an easy decision because that was at a time when travel took a long time and he would not be gone for simply a week or two but would be gone from his congregation for two or three months at least. He had to travel approximately a thousand miles as the crow flies but in those days you could either take a ship or you could walk and that was about it; nothing travelled any faster than the wind or a horse.

This pastor's name was Epaphras. He had been personally trained by the apostle Paul and he was the pastor of this church in Colosse. He faced a problem which we now refer to as the Colossian heresy. It was a strange mix of Greek philosophy and legalistic ideas out of Judaism, along with a mix of Persian dualism and a number of other odd ideas sprinkled in here and there. He was at a loss, like many pastors are, on how to deal with the issues as they came up so he turned over the congregation to one of the men in the church, Archippus, and left on his journey to Rome. Then an unusual thing happened once he arrived in Rome. He spent time with Paul and Timothy and some of the other young men the apostle had trained and he, too, was placed under arrest and was a co-prisoner with the apostle Paul while he was there. Because Epaphras was arrested Paul addressed the matter in a letter and sent it back to Colosse by way of a messenger they were familiar with, a man named Tychicus, who took the letter, along with another epistle to the church in Ephesus in order to address the problems there.

So we begin our study of the epistle to the Colossians. It is rather a short epistle, especially when we realize it is only four chapters, but most of the fourth chapter has to do with Paul relating personal details related to a number of younger men who were with him in Rome and were familiar to the church in Colosse. The epistle to the Colossians is a book that focuses on the sufficiency of Jesus Christ and the significance of that for our spiritual life: for the way we think and the way we live.

The author of this epistle is the apostle Paul. This is clear because there are three times within this epistle when Paul identifies himself as the writer: 1:1, 23, 25; 4:18. He has a hand-written salutation, as he states in 4:18, which is typical of Paul, so there are many characteristics which are similar to other things that we find in Paul's letters. He mentions a number of individuals in this letter, well-known associates with Paul. He mentions Timothy, Aristarchus, and Onesimus who was the slave who had escaped from his owner Philemon and was also sent back with Tychicus and this letter. Mark is also mentioned in the epistle, along with Epaphrus, Luke and Demas. All of these were well-known as Paul's associates. Another thing that is distinct about this letter to the Colossians is that it is very similar to the epistle to the Ephesians. It is likely that Paul wrote Ephesians first and then Colossians. There are a lot of similarities although the emphasis in each epistle is slightly different.

Throughout most of the history of Christianity there has been no debate over who wrote this epistle. But in the 19th century there was the rise of a movement that is usually referred to as 19th century Protestant liberalism. They approached the Bible from a sceptical viewpoint; they didn't believe that God could really speak to men. It was a movement that was generated out of the Enlightenment. They approached the Bible as if it was any other book that had been written in history and instead of beings God's Word to man they looked at the Bible simply as just another record of a group of people's individual experiences with God. It is those assumptions that govern liberal theology and basically they put man at the center of the universe because man is the one who is the ultimate determiner of truth rather than God. For liberal theologians all religion is subjective, all religion is equal, and all religion is invented by man and there is no such thing as eternal truth or objective truth. What we see in our culture today in what we call postmodernism is simply the end result of the kind of thinking that was first being evident in the 19th century.So the 19th century saw the rise of this rationalistic philosophy which is just the opposite of what Christianity is. In fact, it violates the very warning that the apostle Paul gives in Colossians chapter 2, warning these believers against this very type of rationalism. Colossians 2:8 NASB "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ."

With the rise of 19th century rationalism there was this criticism of a lot of what had been held and believed traditionally. There was a denial of Pauline authorship of a number of epistles, denial that the gospels were even written by men who knew Jesus, and that they were written 100-150 years later. When it came to Colossians they tried to prove this by saying that there were significant differences between the style and the writing in Colossians from what we find in other epistles of Paul. They try to emphasize that the vocabulary is different, and it is, but that is because it has a different subject matter. Actually, there are 34 words in Colossians that are distinct and do not appear in any other of Paul's writings: words such as "visible, supremacy, fill up (the Greek word pleroma), philosophy, and deity." On the other hand, words like righteousness (dikaiosune), salvation, revelation and some other words of Paul are not found here. Again, this easily is explained by the fact that Paul had a very large vocabulary and he is addressing a different topic in this epistle.

Another argument that was presented against Pauline authorship was the fact that there were some unusual grammatical constructions in this epistle: phrases like "the hope of glory, the body of flesh, growth from God, the reward of inheritance," phrases that seem a little awkward, stylistically different from the way Paul normally expressed these. But that is easily explained in terms of different circumstances and subject matter. Whenever we compare other epistles by Paul, e.g. little is said about Paul's authorship of Romans yet almost everybody agrees that Romans was written by Paul, the same as 2 Corinthians, and it shows that Paul's style and vocabulary can change dramatically based on circumstances. So the attempt to deny Pauline authorship of Colossians never really gained much ground and by the 20th century it was pretty much accepted by all that Paul did indeed write the epistle.

Paul is writing to this city that is located in the Lycus river valley in the Roman province of Asia, the area that historically had been known as Phrygia. It was a major city, a large commercial center, 400 years earlier but since then due to the rise of two neighboring cities—Laodicea and Hierapolis—they had lost a lot of their population and prestige and it was a much smaller town in the first century. It was located on a major crossroads in earlier centuries but these had now moved north through Laodicea. Another thing we should learn about Phrygia is that this rea had a certain religious significance because of the history of the worship of the Phrygian earth goddess.

The name Colosse is thought to have derived from the fact that at one time there was a very large statue there that was referred to as a colossus, and because of large outcroppings of stone found in this area, but nobody really knows for sure why it was called that.

Colosse had a rich heritage and history. We don't know when it was originally founded or how long the city had been in existence before the 5th century BC, but the first time that the city is mentioned in any surviving historical document was during the time of the Persian wars with Greece. When Xerxes first invaded Greece around 480-475 BC Herodotus describes Colosse as a large city in Phrygia, and it was near there that the army of Persia passed. Later in that century, about 401, there was another Greek army raid by Xenophon, an Athenian general who led 10,000 Greeks to Persia to join with Cyrus the brother of Artaxerxes II who was leading a rebellion against his brother in order to depose him. Cyrus was killed in a major battle and then Xenophon had to lead his 10,000 Greeks in an orderly retreat back to Greece. On the way they camped near Colosse.

Two other cities that grew up within 10 miles of Colosse are Ladocea and Hierapolis. Laodicea was founded some time after the death of Alexander the Great when his empire had been divided into four parts. It was founded and named for the wife of the Seleucid king of Syria that he divorced in order to marry Bernice, the daughter of one of the Ptolomies in order to cement an alliance between the Seleucid empire in Syria and the Egyptian empire of the Ptolomies. That city was founded around 190 BC and began to flourish. It was a center of industry and became quite famous for the black wool of its sheep. As a result of that and the explosion of the population of Laodicea the major trade route moved north from Colosse and from that time Colosse began to diminish in terms of its significance. Hierapolis was a city that was located near the hot springs to which people would travel in order to go to the baths in order to be cured of whatever illnesses they had. Those two cities grew whereas Colosse began to diminish.

Then in AD 60 there was a major earthquake that hit this area doing tremendous damage to all three cities. Both Hierapolis and Laodicea were more prosperous so they rebuilt rather quickly and it took longer for Colosse to rebuild. So again, people would move away from Colosse and move into these other cities. By the time that we come to 60-64 AD Colosse is considered something of a small town.

The people came from a background prior to the Roman empire and took over the area which was the kingdom of Phrygia. Phrygia also was known because of the contribution they made in terms of religion and the worship of a mother-son cult—the Cybele-Attis cult. Cybele was the mother and Attis was the son. This was one of various cults that grew up in the ancient world that were, it is believed, satanic counterfeits that anticipated some sort of resurrection motif in the life of the Messiah. Satan was fully aware from the Old Testament of passages that indicate that there would be a resurrection of the Messiah and so he inserted these into various cultic elements. What is significant for us about the Cybele-Attis cult is that in the worship of Cybele she is the earth mother-goddess, and so this is an ancient pagan form of earth worship and just a variation in the ancient world on environmentalism. We will have an opportunity as we go through Colossians to talk a little about how paganism constructs a worship of nature, and it is always grounded in a worship of nature. This is what under girds much of the modern environmentalist movement. On the other side there should be a firm Christian theology of responsible stewardship of creation but these, while they may sound similar in terms of responsible use of the environment, are ultimately different and ultimately collide because in Christian thinking the earth was created, man was put in charge of the earth, and he is to utilize and develop the resources of the planet that God has given in order to develop and prosper in terms of civilization. Whereas within pagan cults there is always the desire to promote nature in and of itself and to not utilize nature or exploit it for man's benefit, and thus pagan cultures would often not advance.

Also there was a heavy dose of mysticism in the Cybele-Attis cult. Within that cult the various priestesses would gather around and have drunken orgies, dance, speak in various languages and, in fact, in the second century after Christ there was a man by the name of Montanus who had been a priest in the Cybele-Attis cult and had become converted to Christianity, but he still thought in terms of the pagan mysticism of the Cybele-Attis cult. He had two women who were sort of priestesses that worked with him and in the Montanus heresy that developed in the late 2nd century there was an emphasis on emotionalism, and while there is no evidence that there was anything like ecstatic utterances or some sort of pseudo language but that could easily have been there because it was typical in the Cybele-Attis cult out of which they came.

In Colosse there was also a rather large Jewish population which brought to the city an element of Judaism and a recognition of certain things that were in the Old Testament. Under Antiochus the Great in approximately 200 BC 2000 Jewish families from Mesopotamia and Babylon had been moved to this area of Phrygia. During the 200 hundred years from that time up to the time of Christ these Jews prospered, established businesses and became the foundation of the economy in the Lycus river valley area. By the time of the middle part of the first century there were approximately 20 to 30,000 Jews living in this valley between these three different cities. It was in that context that the church was founded. We are not told exactly who founded the church. It was not the apostle Paul because there are various statements made in this letter indicating that Paul only knew of this church from the reports that were brought to him by Epaphras. For example, in 1:4 he talks about the fact that he has only heard of their faith and love for all the saints. In 1:7 he says that he learned this from Epaphras who also declared for them their love in the Spirit. He mentions in 2:1 that there were many there who had not ever seen his face and in 4:12 he indicates that the only way he knows about them is through what he has been told by Epaphras. This is the only epistle that Paul wrote where he did not have a personal connection with. We believe, based on Acts chapter 19, that this church was founded as a result of the men who were sent out from Ephesus by the apostle Paul, and Epaphras would have been one of these young men who were trained in the seminary that Paul started there in Ephesus. This is indicated in Acts 19:10 NASB "This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks… [20] So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing." One of the men who was trained was Epaphras and Epaphras needed advice on how to handle this problem that is coming up in Colosse known as the Colossian heresy. 

Even though there are no direct statements made in this epistle related to the Cybele-Attis cult that was a heavy part of the background and that kind of mysticism is evident in some of the things Paul says in chapters two and three. But this Colossian heresy is really a blend of different ideas. We run into the same kind of thing today. There is all manner of blends of religions today. People think they can pick a little bit of this and a little bit of that, mix it together and add a sprinkling of something else and come up with something they think works for them, and make some new religion. There are always problems with these views. Religion isn't something that you can believe in because it just "works for you," it has to be something that has objective reality and objective truth, and is internally coherent and consistent. Yet most of what most people believe is nothing more than a bunch of irrational bilge that somehow makes them feel good rather than deal with what the Word of God says about their basic condition as a sinner. People don't like to recognize they are a sinner and in disobedience to God because in arrogance they are rejecting the truth. So what we find in Colosse is three or four different strands of religions that are mixed together. One of these came from Judaism and emphasized the obedience to and observance of various Old Testament laws, rituals and ceremonies. Then that was mixed with some elements from Greek philosophy emphasizing a special level of knowledge known as gnosis, which is the Greek word for knowledge, and later was applied in the second century to a specific type of religious or philosophical teaching known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism in and of itself does come along until the middle of the 2nd century but a lot of these ideas were evident and present in Greek culture even before the first century AD. From Greek philosophy it picks up this idea of a special knowledge that is only available to the elite few and they have to have some sort of special experience or special knowledge in order to reach this super level of Christianity. Then from various other religious sources they picked up the idea of dualism, which could have come from Persia, some mystical ideas as well and blend these things together. The idea of dualism is that matter is pitted against the spiritual of the soul, the mind, in matters considered evil, and the soul and the mind are considered to be good. So there is this eternal competing principle of good versus evil but it just goes on and on infinitely in a regression into eternity past but no ultimate resolution in terms of an external creator or definition of what is absolutely true and absolutely good versus that which is evil.

Another feature of the Colossian heresy was something that became evident later in Gnosticism as well. It is the ladder of emanations. This goes back really to an idea in Aristotle that there was a chain of being, and that everything in life is related in this chain of being. Some has a very simply form of being or existence and at the top there are more complex forms of being or existence. God is at the top of the ladder; man is at the bottom. The problem with this is that from a biblical viewpoint God is completely distinct from everything in His creation. In these forms of Greek philosophy they just make everything part of the same chain and so you just move up and down the chain and God is nothing more than a super man—nothing more than a reflection of man and not the creator who is completely distinct and separate from His creation. With this ladder of emanations what you have is God at the top but God can't communicate directly to man who is further down the chain so there has to be all of these intermediate steps. What would fill in these steps would be the angels and in strict forms of Gnosticism that came up later on there was the Old Testament God, Jesus, then angels, and all of these were different forms of intermediate beings between God (whatever that is) at the top and man further down. So this ladder of emanations is really consistent with just an early religious form of evolutionary type of thought.

There was angel worship, because of there were these intermediaries that were sent out by God then they would start worshipping them as well, and so there is evidence that they were worshipping the angels. We see evidence of that kind of thing developed in the worship of saints later on and that kind of thing in Roman Catholic theology.

There was a denial of the deity of Christ. This is at the very core: because Jesus is a creature He is not sufficient. This is why Paul spent so much time in the first two chapters talking about the fact that in Christ the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily. He is fully God and therefore He is fully sufficient for solving all of mankind's problems.

So this is the Colossian heresy, and what is so great about this as the focus is on the sufficiency of Christ is that it helps us to realize that no matter what the issues are that we face today the solution is still the same. It is still the sufficiency of Christ. There are three areas of sufficiency that are always attacked by false teaching and by Satan: the sufficiency of Christ, the sufficiency of grace, and the sufficiency of God's Word. If God's Word, God's grace and Jesus Christ aren't enough then where are we going to get help? We going to go to psychology, to science, sociology, or to some other area of human thought and thus we are going to dilute and diminish the power of God, and we end up destroying grace, destroying Scripture, and destroying the reality of who Jesus Christ is. This is the reason Paul is writing.

He writes from prison. He is under house arrest and not in a jail cell at this time. This is his first imprisonment when he was brought from Israel to Rome. He refers to himself several times in this way in Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians and Philemon: in Ephesians 3:1 as the prisoner of Christ Jesus; in Ephesians 4:1 as the prisoner of the Lord; in Ephesians 6:20 as an ambassador in chains. He is also in prison with Epaphras and is sending the letter to the Ephesians and to the Colossians via Tychicus who he refers to as a beloved brother and a faithful minister in Ephesians 6:21, and also referred to in the same way in Colossians 4:7 in the same way.

There are some distinct characteristics about this epistle.

1)  It is one of the most Christological of books in the New Testament. Jesus Christ is the focus. We learn more about Jesus Christ in this epistle than we do in many of the others because the focus is on who He is and less on what He has done, although that is certainly an emphasis in the middle of the second chapter.

2)  It is one of the strongest statements against the use of unaided human reason to arrive at truth. There is a warning in 2:8-10 that believers should not adopt a philosophy that is not built exclusively upon divine revelation.

3)  There are no Old Testament citations.

4)  It exhibits the most similarities with another canonical letter such as Ephesians, written by the same author.

5)  There are some key doctrines. Prayer in 1:3-11; 4:2-4; mention of pastoral objectives as it relates to Epaphras and others, 1:9-12, 29; regarding Christology we learn a tremendous amount about Jesus Christ as the architect and sustainer of the universe, that He is the head [authority] of all things; He is called the image of the invisible God and the embodiment of all deity; He is the source of the Christian's life, of peace and joy, the rewarder of obedient believers; He is referred to as "Christ in us" and "our hope of glory."

6)  There is also reference to the gospel and the fruit of the gospel, and mention of the fact that we are transferred at salvation into the kingdom of His beloved Son.

7)  There is also a great emphasis on the spiritual life and growth in 1:22-24, 27, 28; 2:2-3, 6, 7; all of chapters three and four.

8)  There is an emphasis on positional truth and sanctification, legalism: what it is and why it is wrong, rewards and inheritance, the old man versus the new man, forgiveness, love, and keys to spiritual growth in 3:15-17, then the emphasis on the spiritual life and our relationships in 3:18-4:1.

9)  In terms of ecclesiology there is an emphasis on the mystery doctrine of the church and the body of Christ.

We need to remember that the great message we have here in Colossians is the sufficiency of Christ. This is a message that unfortunately is lost today.