The city of Colossae was in the Roman province of Asia (the western part of Asia Minor), inland from the important coastal city of Ephesus. It seems that Paul did not visit Colossae during his missionary travels recorded in Acts (Col 2:1; cf. Acts 16:6-8). The church there was probably established while Paul was in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, when converts from Ephesus took the gospel into the surrounding regions (Acts 19:8-10). The person chiefly responsible for founding the church in Colossae was Epaphras (Col 1:6-7).
However, the church had since been troubled by a very persuasive kind of false teaching and the leaders did not know how to deal with it. Epaphras therefore decided to seek Paul’s help. By this time Paul was in Rome, where he was imprisoned for two years awaiting the outcome of his appeal to the Emperor (Acts 28:16,30; cf. 25:11-12; 27:1-2; Col 4:10,18). Upon hearing from Epaphras about the problem in Colossae, Paul wrote and sent off his letter to the Colossians (Col 4:12,16).
The messenger who carried the letter, Tychicus, also carried Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, and probably his letter to the church in Laodicea (Eph. 6:21-22; Col 4:7-8,16). At the same time Paul wrote a short personal letter to Philemon, the man in whose house the Colossian church met (Philem 1- 2,10,23-24; cf. Col 4:9). (For further details of Paul’s writings of this time, see the introductory notes to Ephesians and Philemon.)
The false teaching in Colossae
One reason why false teaching arose in Colossae (and other churches of the region) was that certain people tried to combine Christian belief with pagan mythology. The teaching was an early form of Gnosticism, a heresy that created serious trouble throughout the church during the second century. The name Gnostic comes from the Greek gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge’.
In Colossae the Gnostic-type teaching included ideas taken from Judaism, mainly in relation to religious ceremonies. Gnostic religions usually introduced their followers to a variety of rituals and regulations (Col 2:16,20-21). They also claimed to give their followers special knowledge of mysteries that people outside their group could not share (Col 2:4,18; 1 Tim 6:20). But the main problem centred on a wrong understanding of Jesus Christ and the salvation that Christians receive through him.
The false teachers tried to reconcile things that they considered to be in conflict with each other, such as good and evil, spirit and matter, deity and humanity. They claimed that matter was evil, and that therefore a God who was holy could not come in contact with human beings who were sinful. This meant that Jesus Christ could not be both divine and human.
To solve this problem, the false teachers taught that the gap between God and the human race was bridged by countless beings who were part-spirit and part-matter (or part-divine and part-human). The first and highest of these sprang from God himself and was almost as great as God. The second originated from the first, the third from the second, and so on down the scale, so that those beings closer to God were more Godlike, and those closer to the human race less Godlike. Together these beings controlled the material universe, and people had to approach God through them if they wanted superhuman protection against the world’s evil forces. People climbed a ladder, so to speak, as they moved in worship from one angelic being up to the next, till finally they reached God (Col 2:8,18).
According to the false teachers, Jesus Christ was one of these part-divine part-human beings. Paul saw that if this were so, Christ was no longer the one mediator between God and humankind, and his death was no longer the one way to cleanse sinners and reconcile them to God. Paul asserted that Christ is God, and he is supreme over all things, whether seen or unseen. Christ did not originate from some intermediate being between God and humankind, but is himself the creator of all things, in both the spirit world and the material (Col 1:15-19; 2:9).
At the same time, Christ is the Saviour of sinful human beings and the conqueror of the powers of evil (Col 1:20-22; 2:15). Through him God entered the world of human existence and shares in a living relationship with his human creatures. As the head is united with the body, so Christ is united with his people, the church (Col 1:18; 2:19). This union means that believers can share Christ’s victory over evil and that the character of Christ’s life can be reproduced in them (Col 1:13; 3:3-5,10).
Practical outcome of the teaching
Because of the Gnostic belief that matter was evil, the false teachers in Colossae taught people to withdraw as much as possible from involvement in the material world. Among their teachings were harsh treatment of the body and strict obedience to rules (Col 2:20-23; cf. 1 Tim 4:3). But in other churches, teachers who believed that matter was evil encouraged the opposite sort of behaviour. They argued that since people live in material bodies in a material world, there is no way they can escape the evil associated with matter. The result of this teaching was a lack of self-control that produced much immorality (2 Tim 3:4-5; 1 John 3:4-10).
The false teachers claimed that their knowledge of heavenly mysteries raised them to a level of existence where the deeds of the body could not affect the spirit. The Christian response was that knowledge cannot be separated from behaviour. The true knowledge of heavenly mysteries is found only in Christ, and it always leads to right behaviour (Col 1:9-10; 2:2-4; 3:1-3; 1 John 2:4,29; 3:6,14-19).