Colossians Background & Overview

Paul’s Colossian epistle was written to address a heresy that threatens that church and remind his readers of the truth and nature of Christ, the salvation he offers and living in light of that. The following account attempts to demonstrate that and cover any issues raised in the text.

Colossians offers fascinating insight in to Paul’s life and the mechanisms of his ministry. It is a major piece in the first century puzzle. It does, however raise some interesting questions about the provenance of the letter. We know from within the script itself that it was written from prison (Col 4: 3, 10 & 18) and that another letter, to the Laodiceans (Col 4:16), that the Colossians were privy to was written and almost certainly delivered at the same time. The letters were carried by Tychicus [1] who may well have carried a third Epistle to Ephesus at that time. By its similarity of message and structure to Colossians this makes perfect sense. [2]

Although there is some conjecture where and when he was gaoled as he penned this epistle, most scholars are fairly satisfied with the idea of Rome. J. D G. Dunn mounts a strong case for an Ephesians imprisonment based on the Philemon epistle. Richard Melick on the other hand argues is there are only two possibilities from the records in Acts we have of prison terms long enough to allow writing such a letter, Caesarea and Rome. He is adamant that Rome is the most likely candidate.[3] In the end Dunn agrees that when you engage the three canonical epistles Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians, Rome makes the most sense. [4] This means we can date Colossians to around AD 60, much later in the apostle’s life with his ministry in Asia some years earlier around AD 52-55. [5]

Paul had never actually been to Colossae (Col 2:1). From what we know, his time in Asia was spent in Ephesus preaching firstly in the synagogue and then at the school of Tyrannus. The impact of his ministry there must have been profound. Luke tells us that “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” {Acts 19:10} [6] So those in Colossae would also have responded to the message. Amongst those respondents may well have been Epaphras. [7]  He subsequently became the evangelist amongst his own people the Colossians (Col 1: 7) and most likely throughout the rest of the Lycus Valley. [8]

Paul’s epistle to the Colossians seems to have been one that developed out of occasion rather than intention[9] and was the culmination of a series of events. While in Prison he met Onesimus a fugitive slave of Philemon [10] who was of the Colossian brethren. Through the influence of Paul and doubtless others in his entourage Onesimus was converted and so Paul subsequently wrote to Philemon on his behalf to ensure his safety. This gave Paul occasion to write to the Colossians to encourage them and address crucial issues arising there.

In his opening remarks Paul celebrates that the Colossians had received Christ in his praise to God for them (Col 1: 3-6) recognising the truth of that salvation because of their love “for all the saints.” (4) and the fruit of the Spirit (Col 1: 6, 11; Cf: Gal 5:22).

Interestingly Paul uses a chiastic structure for his prayer [11] As intended this lends power to the opening of the letter, encouraging the Colossians. This is followed by a Petition (9-14) on their behalf which echoes many of the thoughts of the earlier prayer: – 3 “We always thank God…” echoes 9 “…we have not ceased to pray for you”; 3”…since we heard of your faith…” 9 “…from the day we heard…” 6”… in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing…  10”… bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” – and crescendos into final thanks to the Father for the inheritance which is the Kingdom of the Son.[12]

However, the crucial issue Paul is faced with and the driving force behind this letter is in fact the false teaching that has slipped in to the Colossian church, as in many of the other 1st century churches and throughout the church’s history. Epaphras had brought news to Paul of events in Colossae and probably Laodicea and further afield. Often referred to as “The Colossian Heresy”, the text does not specify the exact nature of the heresy itself but rather addresses issues born of that teaching.

J B Lightfoot believes the heresy was “…a combination of Judaic formalism with Oriental mystic speculation…”[13] and NT Wright argues that Paul is tackling Judaism on its own because of the reference to circumcision.  [14]  Judaisers had been prevalent in the Galatian church who Paul had written to just a few years earlier on the subject. [15] Also Paul warns about being judged on observance (or non) of “…festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (2:16) distinct Hebrew markings.  So is it plausible that Wright is right? It may well seem so however, the ensuing verses speak of asceticism and severity to the body and even angelology (Col 2: 16-18, 23; Cf: Gal 1:8) unquestionably Gnostic characteristics. So the question is not whether there is Gnosticism and Judaism but whether there was a syncretistic brand of the two. [16] Dunn, in his reflection leans toward a diasporic Jewish influence and also suggests that, given the lack of canonical Christian scripture at this time it may not be truly fair to label the Colossian problem as Heretical. [17]

That the influences are external rather than from internal speculation seems certain. Twice in the letter they are warned not to be deceived (2:4&8). The meaning here is not by cheating but by well conceived lies. [18] Dunn goes so far as to suggest a planned attack. [19]

Paul’s encouragement to Archippus[20] (Col 4:17) was most likely in light of the heresy. Although it is not stated in the text, it seems that he is the minister of this church in Colossae. He appears to be struggling to hold against the onslaught of false teaching. Paul’s words endorse the fact that God has appointed Archippus to this task and so Paul endeavours to encourage him in his plight.[21] If his ministry was to pastor the Colossian church, it was his responsibility to ensure the congregation understood orthodox truths rather than heresy. With Christian scripture still being in the developing stage, this must have been a trying exercise for first century pastors hence Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus and the growing need for apologetics and councils through the life of the early church.

In answering the heresy Paul articulates the most crucial part of his message to the Colossians: the centrality of Christ.  Not only is it the main thrust of the Colossian epistle, it stands as one of the most telling points in all of Scripture; Christ is central not only in salvation but in all creation and “God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him.” (Col 1:19). And also “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form…”  (Col 2:9).

Academics generally concur that this exalting praise (1: 15-20) is in the form of an ancient Hymn or Poem. [22]  Some even go so far as to suggest that this may have even been an existing Hymn that Paul reiterates. [23] Some however are quite opposed to the suggestion that any other than Paul wrote this. [24]

Never-the-less the literary form of these verses does not detract from the fact that these statements have been drawn on as orthodoxy for centuries after and enlighten us to the very nature of Christ. Wright suggests that Paul uses the prose to capture the imagination of his audience.[25] It is hard to think of any other piece of scripture that gives us more concentrated doctrine on the person, nature and centrality of Christ. The reality that “…in Him all[26] things hold together” (1: 17) makes him undeniably God. But not only is he Creator as this suggests, he is: Saviour, redeemer (14a); Forgiver (14b); He is the very image of the unseen God (15) Jesus became a man (Phil 2). In Him we can see God in flesh and in nature. Man has also been described as being made in His image (Gen 1:27[27]). However, Christ is the firstborn over all creation. [28] Firstborn refers to status. He is the heir of creation. (1:16) [29] “The Greek word for “firstborn” is prōtotokos (πρωτοτοκος).”This word has two important implications: Not only was Jesus sovereign over creation he pre-existed it and therefore is not created.[30]In fact he is the creator (v16). He is the firstborn from the dead which grants new life to His church (18) of which he is the head.

The best way to deal with any untruth is to conquer it with truth. In explaining the truth of who Jesus really is (1:15-20) and His redeeming work of salvation Paul reminds the Colossian Church of the Gospel they first heard and the salvation they have received (1:21-22), If they continue to stand firm on the gospel they have heard (1:23)…

The heart of Colossians found in the key statement Ch 2:6-7. This is the very crux of the whole letter.[31] It begins a full instruction on how they are to live in light of Christ’s work that dominates the remainder of the letter. (2:6-4:6) They are to remember the true nature of their salvation and to remain firm in Christ. [32]   And that is that: they have died (2:13&20), been buried, baptised and raised in Him (2:12; 3:1); They have been circumcised which is a spiritual circumcision, of the heart, not a physical circumcision as the Judaisers would stress to them. This circumcision is not of man but of God. [33] (2:11). All their debt has been now nailed to the cross. (2:14) That means the legal obligation of death (2:13; cf Rom 6:23). Through all of this they have “…fullness in Christ (2:10). As they were taught (2:7), there is nothing else they need to be complete. The natural response to this is to be “…overflowing in thankfulness.” [34]

The deceivers are trying to add to this Gospel message. They are trying to say that the completeness found in Jesus (2:10) who has all the fullness of the deity dwell in Him(2:9), is not enough to give salvation and are trying to peddle “human tradition”(2:8).

The powers and authorities mentioned in 2:15 may have a passing reference to the Jewish and Roman Authorities that put Jesus on the cross. But more likely refer to sin and Satan. Certainly with the debt (14) being nailed to the cross this would appear to be the case.

The example Paul sets for us in evangelism demonstrates strategy. If we are to reach our communities and our world, we need to be setting long and short term goals that are flexible in a similar manner. Paul’s missionary strategy was to evangelize in major centres such as Ephesus establishing bodies of Christians who influence their region and allow commerce and trade to affect outlying centres.[35] Paul’s concern was not just to see people saved and matured. He was keen to raise up ministers like Epaphras (1: 7), Tychicus (4:7) and Aristarchus (4:10) who were keen to see others grow to a maturity in Christ (4:12) which can be recognised by their love in the spirit. (1:4, 8). (Cf: Jn 13: 34-35 ; Mt 22:36-40; Rom 18: 8; Gal 5:12-13) Which is the fruit of the Spirit (Col 1: 6; Cf: Gal 5: 22)

As was his practice (Acts 17:2[36]) Paul went to the synagogue in Ephesus and began reasoning and teaching the Gospel. And then moved to the Hall of Tyrannus and continued to teach. It is most likely that Epaphras heard the word and was converted at this time and then carried the word into the smaller towns in his own region the Lycus Valley where Colossae was situated. [37] In the same way if we disciple believers to live in thankfulness (2:7) they in turn will desire that others respond to and mature in the Gospel.

False teaching is as prevalent in today’s church. Perhaps, even more so now and in more subversive and detrimental ways than we have previously known. Of course the best way to overcome false teaching is to impart truth. Paul has done that clearly in this epistle proclaiming the deity of Christ and leaving little room for any doubt as to the nature of Salvation in Him. We too need to be striving for orthodoxy in its purest sense and so not allow heresy to gain momentum within our own sphere of influence.

Although the epistle to the Colossians may have been born out of opportunity, it is clear that Paul meant to address the Heresy taking place there by reminding the Colossians of the truth of the  Gospel they had been taught. Central to this truth is the Divine and human nature of Christ and the salvation that can only be found in Him. Paul exhorts his readers to continue in Christ in the same way they received Him and gives clear and concise instructions for Christian living.

Intellectual Property of T J Warner

Bruce, F. F. “The Epistle to the Galatians : A Commentary on the Greek Text .” Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1982.

Comfort, Walter A. Elwell and Philip Wesley. “Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Tyndale reference library .” Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2001.

D. A. Carson/ Edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. “ New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, Rev. Ed. of: The New Bible Commentary. 3rd Ed.1970, 4th ed.: .” Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Drane, John William. In Introducing the New Testament Completely rev. and updated, 351. Oxford: Lion Publishing plc, 2000.

Dunn, James D. G. “The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon : A Commentary on the Greek Text.” Grand Rapids, Mich.: Carlisle: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996.

Ellington, Roger L. Omanson and John. “A Handbook on Second Book of Samuel, UBS handbook series .” New York: United Bible Societies, 2001.

Foundation, Robert L. Thomas and The Lockman. “ New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible : Updated Edition.” Anaheim: Foundation Publications, 1998.

Garland, David E. “The NIV Application Commentary: From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life.” Grand Rapidis, MI: Zondervan, 1998.

Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley. “ Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard FriedTheological Dictionary of the New Testament, Translation of: Theologisches Worterbuch Zum Neuen Testament. , 1995, c1985.” Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995, c1985.

HAWTHORNE Gerald F., Ralph P. MARTIN Daniel G. REID. “Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.” Downers Groves, ILL: Inter Varsity, 1993.

Hughes, Robert B. and J. Carl Laney. “ Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. of: New Bible companion. 1990.; The Tyndale reference library.” Wheaton, Ill.: Hughes, Robert B. and J. Carl Laney. Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. of: New Bible companiTyndale House, 2001.

Keown, Mark. “ New Testament B Lecture notes: Paul’s Missionary Strategy.” Auckland: Laidlaw, 2008.

Lightfoot, Joseph Barber. “ Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon., 8th ed. .” London and New York: Macmillan and co., 1886.

Marshall, D. R. W. Wood and I. Howard. “New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed.” Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill: Downers Grove, Ill., 1996.

Melick, Richard R. “The New American Commentary: vol. 32, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, electronic ed., Logos Library System.” Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1991.

Mish, Frederick C. et. al. “Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh ed.” Springfield, Mass: Merriam-Webster Inc, 2003.

“New World Translation.” Brooklyn, NY: Watchtower Bible and Tract Soiety of New York, Inc., 1984.

Nida, Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene Albert. “ A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon.” New York: United Bible Societies, 1993, c1977.

Olson, Roger E. “The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity.” Downers Gove Il. : IVP, 2002.

Wiersbe, Warren W. In The Bible Exposition Commentary, “An Exposition of the New Testament Comprising the Entire ‘BE’ Series”–Jkt. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books., 1996, c1989.

Wright, N. T. “Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Ephesians.” Leicester,U.K: IVP, 1986.

Wuest, Kenneth S. “Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament : For the English Reader .” Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, c1984.

Zuck, Roy B. “A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, electronic ed.” Chicago, Il.: Moody Press, 1994 (Logos 1996).


[1] Tychicus courier refs: (Cf: Col 4:7; Eph 6:21 see also 2 Tim 4:12; Titus 3:12.) Also of Paul’s entourage through Greece and Macedonia (Acts 20:4); And faithful minister. (Col 4:7)

[2]Richard R. Melick, vol. 32, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1991), 171.

[3] Melick, 170.

[4]James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: William B. Eerdmans Publishing; Paternoster Press, 1996), 40.

[5] Gerald F. HAWTHORNE, Ralph P. MARTIN Daniel G. REID, Dictionary of Paul and his letters, (Downers Groves, ILL: Inter Varsity, 1993,) 147-153

[6] Hawthorne 148.

[7]Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, “An Exposition of the New Testament Comprising the Entire ‘BE’ Series”–Jkt. (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1996, c1989), Col 1:5. {LOGOS No Pg}

[8]Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon., 8th ed. (London and New York: Macmillan and co., 1886), 29.

[9]“Onesimus’s desire to restore his relationship with his master probably provided the incentive for writing…” – Melick, 170.

[10]John William Drane, Introducing the New Testament, Completely rev. and updated. (Oxford: Lion Publishing plc, 2000), 351.

[11]Roger L. Omanson and John Ellington, A Handbook on Second Book of Samuel, UBS handbook series (New York: United Bible Societies, 2001), 1259.

Dunn, 54.

[12] Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1993], c1977), 7.

[13] Lightfoot, 32.

[14] N. T. Wright, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Ephesians, (Leicester,U.K: IVP,1986)104.

[15]F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians : A Commentary on the Greek Text, Includes Indexes. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1982), 56.

[16] Lightfoot,

[17]James D. G. Dunn, 23.

[18] Bratcher, 47.

[19] Melick, 252.

[20] Based on the greeting in the letter to Philemon (Phlm 2), assuming all is said in the nature of personal correspondence  it is altogether possible that the Archippus mentioned in Paul’s closing remarks (Col 4: 17) is Philemon’s son and Apphia is his wife.

[21] Wiersbe, Col 4:15 {Pg No. not offered}.

[22] Wright, 64.

[23]James D. G. Dunn, 83.

[24] David E. Garland, The NIV Application Commentary: From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998) 82-83.

[25]Wright, 66.

[26] Jehovah’s Witnesses, as adherents to Arianism insert the word “other” in parenthesis in The New World Translation to try to skirt the idea that Jesus may be equal with God. In doing so they seek to remove Him from the Godhead and thereby overcome Trinitarian theologies.

Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of  Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity, ( Downers Gove Il. : IVP, 2002) 144.

NWT (Col 1: 16-17) Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1984

[27] Imago Dei –Olson, 200.

[28] Bratcher, 22.

[29] Wiersbe, Col 1:11-19 {Page No. not offered}.

[30]Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament : For the English Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, c1984), Col 1:15. {page No. not offered.

[31]Similar key verses: Romans 1:16–17 and Galatians 1:11–12 -Dunn, 138.

[32]James D. G. Dunn, 138.

[33] Bratcher, 56.

[34] ibid. 51.

[35] Mark Keown, New Testament B Lecture notes: Paul’s Missionary Strategy, (Auckland: Laidlaw, 2008) 89-93.

[36] Cf: As persecutor- Acts 9:2,20; 22:19; 26:11. As apostle: Acts 13:1-5, 13ff; 14:1ff; 17:1-2,10,17; 18:4, 19:8

[37] Hawthorne, 148.

~ by timmywarner on February 5, 2012.

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