Overview of the Book of Colossians

Question
Overview of the Book of Colossians
Answer

Overview of the Book of Colossians

Author: The author is the Apostle Paul.

Purpose:

To affirm and explain the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ in opposition to all other powers and attempts to gain. salvation.

Date: c. A.D. 60

Key Truths:

  • Christ is supreme over all of creation and over the Church.
  • Believers must not be confused by false pieties that mix true faith with false religions or philosophies.
  • Christ is completely sufficient to bring the fullness and newness of life to believers.
  • Christians must live in dependence on Christ, not on any other power.

Author:

The traditional view that apostle Paul wrote Colossians is certainly correct (Col. 1:1; 4:18). Though many modern scholars have doubts, the case for Pauline authorship is strong. First, some critics argue that this letter does not demonstrate Paul's typical attention to Church officers. This epistle does not speak of elders and deacons, but the letter certainly does not indicate any opposition to Church offices; it merely does not mention them. Second, some object to Pauline authorship on the basis of linguistic distinctives of the letter. Yet most of the language and style in Colossians is well within the range Paul displays elsewhere. Some elements of the vocabulary of this epistle are distinctive (terms such as "fullness," "mystery," "basic principles," and "humility"), but these terms all appear elsewhere in Paul's writings. Third, the false teaching opposed in this epistle is not to be identified with second-century Gnosticism, which did not fully develop until after Paul's lifetime. A careful reading indicates that if the false teaching was related to Gnosticism, it was at most an incipient form of it. In light of the explicit affirmation of Pauline authorship and the early Church's acceptance of the epistle as authentic, we may confidently state that Paul wrote this letter.

Time and Place of Writing:

During Paul's first imprisonment in Rome (Acts 2:16-31), Epaphras (see "Introduction: Original Audience") joined him under house arrest (Acts 28; Col. 4:12-13). He told the apostle about false teachings that threatened the Church of Colosse and remained with Paul to pray for the Churches of the Lycus Valley. It is most likely that Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians in response to this visit (c. A.D. 60).

Original Audience:

Paul never visited Colosse (Col. 2:1). The Church there had been founded by Epaphras, himself a Colossian, apparently in the wake of Paul's ministry in Ephesus (A.D. 53-55). Luke noted that Paul's message in Ephesus spread until "all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord" (Acts 19:10).

In earlier days, Colosse, a city on the Lycus River in southeastern Asia Minor, had been prosperous and large, enjoying a thriving wool industry and a strategic location on a main overland trade route between Ephesus, 100 miles to the west, and the Euphrates River, some 400 miles to the east. In the days of Paul, however, Colosse had declined in the face of the growth of two sister cities in the Lycus Valley: Laodicea and Hierapolis. In Paul's day, Colosse was a fairly inconsequential market town. It was easily the least significant city to which any of Paul's surviving letters was addressed.

Purpose and Distinctives:

The Colossian epistle addressed Christians who had come under the influence of a false teaching that mixed elements of Greek philosophy with Judaism. In part, this movement taught that the Colossian Christians were subject to a variety of spiritual forces that needed to be placated through veneration, asceticism and the observance of special holy days.

Paul wrote to help members of the Church in Colosse hold firmly to the truth that God had already accepted them by virtue of their union with Christ. While perfection, or maturity, still stood before them as a goal (Col. 1:22-23, 28), they already enjoyed "fullness in Christ" (Col. 2:10), the perfect One.

It is difficult to reconstruct the precise elements of false teaching to which Paul responded because the epistle is less a critique of error than a positive statement of the sufficiency of the person and work of Christ. However, certain features of this false teaching do surface.

First, it claimed to be a "philosophy" (Col. 2:8). As was often the case in the Hellenistic period, the word philosophy did not refer to rational inquiry, but to occult speculations and practices based on a body of "tradition" (Col. 2:8).

Second, this false teaching appears to have been strongly dependent on Judaism. It placed much value on legal ordinances derived from the Old Testament, such as food regulations, Sabbath and New Moon observance, and other prescriptions of the Jewish calendar (Col. 2:16). The mention of circumcision (Col. 2:11) also points to the Jewish nature of this false teaching, but it does not suggest that the Old Testament rite was a central issue in Colosse, as it was in Galatia (see Overview of the Book of Galatians).

Third, the role of angelic spirits was an important element in this teaching. Three key factors point to this:

(1) Paul stressed Christ's superiority to and victory over "the powers and authorities" (Col. 2:15; see also Col. 1:15-16, 19; 2:10, 18-19). He wanted the Colossians to stand strong in their commitment to Christ as the Lord of all.

(2) The phrase "the basic principles of this world" (Col. 2:8, 20; cf. Gal. 4:3) may also point to angelic beings. Although some interpreters in the past associated this expression with Jewish legalism, a pagan identification is more likely. The Greek word stoicheia, which the NIV84 translates as "principles," may also be translated "elements." In the first century this term was used in the Greek world to refer to gods of stars and planets, and even to the physical elements (earth, wind, fire, and water) that were thought to control the destinies of men and women (note that these same elements are still taught to contain spiritual power in certain sects of satanism and witchcraft today). For instance, the Phrygian god Cybele and her lover Attis are known to have been transformed by popular pagan piety (though the dating is obscure) into astral and cosmic powers. Parallel developments took place in Jewish traditions, which opened the way for mixing Judaism with these pagan beliefs. Some Jewish thinkers merged angels with astral powers thought to be protecting the planets. Moreover, intertestamental Jewish literature envisioned Israel caught in the middle of a conflict between two kingdoms led, respectively, by good and evil powers that claimed her allegiance. The victory of the good powers over the evil was the promised result of Israel's repentance, full obedience and perfect Sabbath observance. It appears that the Colossians also may have come under the influence of a syncretistic piety - partly Jewish, partly pagan - that encouraged obeisance to these astral or cosmic powers.

(3) The role of angels in this false teaching is also evident in the phrase "the worship of angels" (Col. 2:18). Early Christians understood angels to be agents in creation and in the giving of the law (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2). The teaching in Colosse confused the limited role angels legitimately have as "ministering spirits" (Heb. 1:14) with the larger cosmic role being accorded them in some Jewish quarters, as well as the role attributed to astral powers outside Judaism. As a means of overcoming fear of the astral or cosmic powers, and under the guise of revelations the "philosophers" received in ecstatic states, the Colossians were being urged to pursue a regimen of asceticism, abstinence and angel veneration.

Paul wrote to oppose these false teachings, whatever their source. He rejected ceremonialism (Col. 2:16-17), asceticism (Col. 2:21, 23), and angel worship (Col. 2:18). Paul exalted Christ as supreme over all and as the source of all wisdom (Col. 1:15-20; 2:2-3, 9).

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

The Epistles of the New Testament

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries and adjunct Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.