Paul was a prisoner at the time he wrote his letter to the Colossians (Col 4:3). Having appealed to the Emperor because of the injustice he met in Palestine, Paul came to Rome, accompanied by Luke and Aristarchus.
He was held prisoner in Rome for two years, while he awaited the outcome of his appeal (Acts 25:10-12; 27:1-2; 28:16,30; Col 4:3,10,14). While in Rome, Paul was visited by Epaphras, the man who had most likely founded the church in Colossae (Col 1:6-7; 4:12). (For details of Colossae and the origins of the church there see COLOSSAE.) Epaphras wanted Paul’s help, as an unusual kind of false teaching had appeared in Colossae. Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians mainly to deal with this false teaching.
The false teaching in Colossae
This teaching was an early form of Gnosticism, a kind of religious philosophy that combined Christian belief with pagan mythology. In Colossae it had certain features taken from Judaism, mainly in relation to religious ceremonies. Gnostic religions had great interest in things mysterious or ritualistic (Col 2:16,20-21). A chief concern of the false teachers was with things they considered to be in conflict, such as good and evil, spirit and matter, deity and humanity. Believing matter to be evil, they claimed that a God who was holy could not come in contact with human beings. This meant, in their view, that Jesus Christ could not be both divine and human. The false teachers therefore taught that there were countless intermediate beings, part-spirit and partmatter, who bridged the gap between God and the human race. Those closer to God were more Godlike, those closer to humans less Godlike, but together they controlled the material universe. People had to worship them and win their favour if they wanted protection against the evil forces at work in the world (Col 2:8,18). According to this teaching, Jesus Christ was one of these part-divine beings. Paul saw that if this was so, Christ’s death was no longer able to cleanse people of sin and bring them to God; Christ was no longer the one mediator between God and humankind. Paul asserted that Christ is God, and he is over and above every being in the spirit world and the material world (Col 1:15-19; 2:9). Indeed, he is the creator of all things, the Saviour of sinful people and the conqueror of the powers of evil (Col 1:20-22; 2:15). Through him, God has entered the world of human experience and is as inseparably united with his redeemed people as the head is with the body (Col 1:18; 2:19). This union between Christ and his people has an important practical significance for believers. It means that they too have victory over evil, and as a result are able to produce Christlike qualities in their lives (Col 3:3-5,10).
Contents of the letter
Paul opens with a thanksgiving for the Colossians’ faith and a prayer that their Christian growth may continue (1:1-14). He then announces the theme of his message, which is the greatness of Christ and his work. The foundational truths of Christianity centre on him and cannot be changed to suit human philosophies (1:15-23). These are truths that Paul teaches everywhere, and he wants all believers to stand firm in them (1:24-2:5). Since false teaching leads people into bondage, Paul wants the Colossians to hold firmly to the truth of the gospel and so enjoy their freedom in Christ (2:6-15). They are not to submit to religious systems that people have invented, for their new life is bound up with Christ and with him alone (2:16-3:4). They should give expression to this new life by getting rid of old habits and developing qualities of character that are Christlike (3:5-17), whether in private life, in the home, or in society at large (3:18-4:6). Paul keeps personal details till the end. He talks about various people, of whom some are with him, some about to visit Colossae, and some resident in and around Colossae (4:7-18).