Introduction and Overview (Colossians 1:1-2)

By Andrew E. Courtis

The Bible teaches that the Christian has all the spiritual resources necessary for life and godliness (1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:3; Col. 2:10; 2 Pet. 1:3). However, there are many within Christian churches that are being intimidated by and in turn deceived by various trends that undermine this reality. These trends promise the individual a higher spiritual level in their Christian walk or ministry, but in reality they rob the believer of true spirituality. They undermine the pure sufficiency of Jesus Christ by having people look outside of Christ for help. How can we be armed against such trends? What can we be doing to make sure that we are pursuing genuine spirituality and not a counterfeit spirituality? This is what brings us to the letter of Paul to the Colossians. This is a short letter written during Paul’s first imprisonment (Acts 28), and has therefore been classified as a prison epistle.[1] In response to an error infecting the church (which will be discussed later on), Paul provides the readers the solution to this dangerous problem. This brief letter written to a church in a small insignificant city continues to be a powerful and relevant letter for the Church of Jesus Christ today. There is an important message for us in this letter.

1. THE AUTHOR

Paul begins by making reference to his apostleship. The word “apostle” carries the idea of one who has been sent out. In the Biblical context it refers to one who has been specially commissioned and sent out by Christ Himself. Paul received this commission from the Lord Jesus Christ on the Damascus road immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:15-16). The office of an apostle was a foundational ministry limited to the first century (Eph. 2:20). In-order to qualify one had to be directly chosen by Jesus Christ and be a witness of His resurrection. The ministry of an apostle was confirmed with signs and miracles (2 Cor. 12:12). Paul did not place himself into this position, nor did he earn it – instead, this office was determined “by the will of God.” Therefore, it was a position that carried with it divine authority. So whatever Paul says in this letter comes with the very voice of God. Paul was not alone when he wrote this. The reference to Timothy indicates his presence with Paul as a co-labourer of the gospel. Timothy was Paul’s young protégé in the faith. The Scriptures describe him as a young man (1 Tim. 4:12); who struggled with infirmities (1 Tim. 5:23), and seemed to be timid by nature (2 Tim. 1:7). Despite such circumstances, he was a gifted preacher (1 Tim. 4:13-14) and a faithful co-worker of Paul.

2. THE AUDIENCE

The recipients of the letter are designated as “saints and faithful brothers in Christ” (1:2a). This reveals who they are in position (“saints”) and practice (“faithful”). God declares every believer a saint. This means that by God’s own choice and initiative, He set you apart to be His own. You have become a member of His own special people. If you are a saint, then the result will be faithfulness. Sainthood and faithfulness can only be found from union with Christ. If you are not “in Christ” then your position and practice before God is not pleasing to Him and therefore you are deserving of condemnation and the just judgment of God. The believers in the Colossian church were “in Christ” and were then privileged with sainthood and faithfulness.

The Colossians spiritual location was “in Christ”, but their physical location was in the city of Colossae. Colossae was situated in the Lycas Valley (which is in modern Turkey) with two neighbouring (and more influential) cities, namely Laodicea (2:1; 4:13, 15, 16) and Hierapolis (4:13). It was situated 161 kilometres east of the city of Ephesus. This city was a good source of fresh cool water, unlike Hierapolis who was known for its hot springs. Laodicea on the other hand didn’t contain hot or cold water, but relied on receiving water from Hierapolis (cf. Rev. 3:15-16). Colossae was a small city, and probably one of the least significant cities mentioned in the New Testament.

After making mention of them by name, position, practice and location, Paul then greets them with a variation of his standard greeting in all 13 of his epistles.[2] He says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father.” This greeting is loaded with meaning, as it makes use of significant theological themes. “Grace” is the grounds of our salvation, whereas “peace” is the result of our salvation. Such truths belong to all those who are in Christ. That describes the recipients; now let us consider why Paul wrote this.

3. THE OCCASION

Paul likely had never personally visited the church is Colossae, but he evidently had a relationship with this local congregation. During Paul’s ministry in the city of Ephesus, Paul taught in the school of Tyrannus for two years (161 Kilometers west of Colossae). During these two years of ministry, Luke records, “This took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). As a result, Epaphras (Colossians 1:7) likely took this message of the gospel to Colossae and started the church. Some time later Epaphras – the likely founder of the church – had visited Paul during his imprisonment. During this visit he had filled Paul in on the progress and situation of the church in Colossae. He shared encouraging news with Paul (which is evident from 1:3-8), but he also revealed some troubling news. This troubling news is what many scholars refer to as the “Colossian error”. Paul writes this so that they may be protected from the subtle false teaching that was attempting to delude them (2:4).

The identification of the Colossian error is no small task. One scholar revealed that there were 44 opinions on this issue amongst scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries.[3] Some have tried to align it with Essenism, Merkabah Mysticism, Greek pagan cults, Gnosticism, Christian Gnosticism, and Syncretistic religion.[4] Due to the fact that there is no external documentation identifying this error, it is difficult to conclude what it specifically refers to.[5]

Significantly Paul doesn’t even hint at it until 2:4. The reason for this late allusion to the error is because he provides them with the magnificence of the Lord Jesus Christ first. This theme of the supremacy of Christ dominates the majority of the first two chapters.[6] Chapter 2:8-23 contains helpful information that provides a basis and understanding of the key elements to this error. He makes it clear that this false teaching does not find it origin in Biblical authority (Col. 2:8). It was not from God, but instead was formulated from human tradition. Drawing from information within the passage of 2:16-23, there seems to be three key elements of this false teaching: (1) legalism vv. 16-17, (2) mysticism vv. 18-19, and (3) asceticism vv. 20-23.

Legalism refers to the notion that in-order to please God, we must add to the gospel a series of rules. Obedience to these rules determines spirituality in the view of this system. The legalistic practices of this error were restrictions of what people shouldn’t eat and drink, and rules regarding various Jewish festivals and religious days (v. 16). Mysticism teaches that you can gain progress in your life or gain greater insight into spirituality by receiving internal subjective experience (in contrast to receiving objective knowledge). Such an experience can come by means of dreams, visions, meditation or even feelings. In the Colossian error this involved some kind of “spiritual experience” in connection with angels (v. 18). This apparently led to a greater spirituality. Sadly, there are Christian groups practicing things like yoga in-order to feel closer with God, and there are those who claim that God speaks to them and teach this deception to their followers. These are some examples of mysticism creeping into the church today. The third element of this error was asceticism. This refers to a lifestyle of abstaining from certain or any physical element or pleasure. Such rigorous practice of physical self-denial would apparently liberate the soul and lead to greater spirituality.

This error blended Jewish, Gentile and Christian practices. This error ultimately led to an attack of the Person of Jesus Christ. It appeared to teach that if someone were going to be spiritual, they would need to incorporate into their Christian life legalistic, mystic, and ascetic practices. All of these ignored the supremacy of Jesus Christ and the believer’s sufficiency in Him, and ended up adding to the pure Christian gospel life.

4. THE MESSAGE

The letter to the Colossians is Paul’s answer to error and false teaching infecting this local church. In this letter Paul presents the Person of Jesus Christ as the only source for true Christian living. The answer to the successful, powerful, and true Christian life is not found in the latest Christian fad or worldly philosophy – regardless of the prominence it may give to Christ. The answer is found exclusively in the Person of Jesus Christ. He is the Supreme One and therefore it is from Him alone we gain the sufficiency needed for the Christian life. Fads and philosophies will come and go, but Christ will endure forever. Errors mixed with Christian truth can be very subtle. The epistle to the Colossians calls for believers to be filled with the fullness of Jesus Christ. The basis of our spiritually ought not to be human tradition, instead it must be Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ ought to be the believer’s greatest treasure and desire. He is to consume our thoughts, and be our sufficiency for the Christian walk (cf. Col. 3:1-4:1).

Paul’s message to Colossian Christians is that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Lord Jesus Christ is above all earthly and spiritual powers; therefore, as the Supreme One, we can obtain all our sufficiency for life and service from Him alone.

Study Questions:

  1. In what way has the Christian been given all the spiritual resources necessary for life and godliness?
  2. What do you know about the author?
  3. What were the elements of the false teaching threating the Colossian church? Are their similar dangers in the church today?
  4. Discuss the difference between Christ being prominent in our lives and Christ being pre-eminent in our lives.

[1] The other Prison Epistles are: Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon.
[2] C. F. D. Moule makes the following observation: “This is the only one of the Pauline epistles in which Christ is not coupled with God in the greetings formula (and in inferior texts scribes have made up the deficiency). It is difficult to divine any reason for the omission. In any case, the apostle proceeds immediately to a description of Christ in more exalted terms than in any of his other epistles.” (Moule, C. D. F., The Cambridge Greek New Testament Commentary, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, Cambridge University Press, 1958, p. 46).
[3] Cited in H. Wayne House. “Heresies in the Colossian Church.” Bibliotheca Sacra 149:593 (January-March 1992): 45
[4] Ibid. 46-54
[5] For a helpful examination of this issue see: F. F. Bruce, “The Colossian Heresy,” Bibliotheca Sacra 141 (July—September 1984): 195-208 and Ian K. Smith Heavenly Perspective: A study of the Apostle Paul’s Response to a Jewish Mystical Movement at Colossae. (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006)
[6] 1:13-20; 2:2-3, 8-15.