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The Letter to the Colossians

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Authorship

The Colossian letter makes the explicit claim to be from the hand of Paul. In 1:1 the text says, “From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God….” The writer again refers to himself in 1:23 as “Paul,” a “servant of the gospel.” And finally, in 4:18, the letter alleges to have been written by the apostle Paul. That the apostle was indeed the author was held unanimously throughout the history of the church until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the consensus surrounding Pauline authorship began to be questioned, on several grounds, the first being language and style. It is argued that there are many hapax legomena1 in Colossians and that there are unusual groupings of synonyms (1:9; 3:16) uncommon to Paul.2 But these judgments are far too subjective3 to count significantly against the traditional view since the use of different terms and style can be accounted for simply on the basis of the different circumstances which prompted the writing of Colossians, i.e., the particular “philosophy” Paul was combating. Further, the undisputed letters can hardly account for Paul’s total active vocabulary regarding these issues. We might also note that there are many verbal and stylistic similarities between Colossians and other non-disputed Pauline. These similarities do not occur in the rest of the New Testament.4

Second, the historical objections raised by F. C. Baur and the Tübingen school (and many others) include the argument that Colossians could not have been written by the apostle Paul because the heresy dealt with in the letter is a second century, not a first century phenomenon. But those who hold to Pauline authorship do not argue for a full blown gnosticism such as we find in the second century. All that is required is an incipient form of gnosticism which is entirely reasonable and something quite likely in the lifetime of Paul.5

Third, other objections include the fact that some of Paul’s theological terms such as “justification” and “law” do not appear in the letter and other theological emphases such as the high christology in 1:15-20 do occur. But these arguments prove too much for if the letter were forged we would expect the perpetrator to make more use of Paul’s theological categories lest his product be rejected outright. Further, if 1:15-20 is an early christian hymn there is nothing in Paul’s theology that would have prevented him from endorsing it and using it to combat the heresy in Colossae (cf. 1 Cor 8:6; 2 Cor 4:4; Phil 2:6).6

Finally, there is nothing in Colossians that Paul could not have written. Such a conclusion, then, is consistent with the letter’s claim that he indeed is the author. The similarities and links to Ephesians do not suggest dependence of the one on the other, but rather the same author writing to two different groups in similar conditions. And the strong links to Philemon, which is an undisputed Pauline letter, further confirm the authenticity of Colossians.7

Paul’s Imprisonment

The letter clearly indicates that Paul was in prison (4:10, 18); three different locations have been suggested: (1) Caesarea, (2) Rome, and (3) Ephesus. The least likely option is Caesarea, since (1) it is unlikely that Onesimus would have fled to this city to hide, (2) in Colossians Paul expects a quick release, but when he was imprisoned in Caesarea in Acts he was anticipating an appeal to Caesar not an immediate release, and (3) if written from Caesarea, it is difficult to account for Paul’s silence regarding Philip in whose house the apostle lodged just before he was arrested (cf. Acts 21:8), and (4) Paul was not as free to engage in preaching the gospel in Caesarea as he was in Rome. This fact is important when we realize that Onesmius came to Christ through Paul’s preaching (Phmn 10).

Some scholars have suggested Ephesus as the place of writing since it was close to Colossae (ca. 100 miles), thus making sense out of Paul’s request that a guest room be prepared for him upon his release (Phlm 22). Indeed, Ephesus is the place of origin suggested by the Marcionite prologue to the letter, but there is other early church evidence to suggest that Paul was in Rome. Further, Ephesus is a much shorter distance for Onesimus to have fled (and for Epaphras and others to have traveled) as opposed to Rome (ca. 1200 miles). But, many have contended that Onesimus fled to Rome where he could hide more easily in the populace. And one can still ask why Paul would have written a letter to a church located in the very city in which he was imprisoned. Further, Paul mentions Mark (4:10) and Luke (4:14) as being with him when he penned the letter, yet in the “we” sections in Acts Luke does not include the ministry in Ephesus. Also, there is no explicit mention of an Ephesian imprisonment in Acts, though Paul’s ministry there was certainly turbulent at times.8 In contrast, Acts does record Paul’s imprisonment in Rome and in such a way that is quite compatible with the details of Colossians, including the freedom to move about and preach the gospel. Though both Rome and Ephesus are possible candidates for the provenance of Colossians, Rome appears a slightly better option. It is the later of the two and thus allows time for some of the developments of thought found in Colossians, but absent from, say, 1 Corinthians and Romans. If the Roman imprisonment is correct, the letter was probably written ca. AD 59-61. If the Ephesian imprisonment is correct, then a few years earlier in the mid fifties is probably correct.

The Colossian Church and the Purpose of the Letter

The cosmopolitan city of Colossae (with Phrygian, Greek, Jewish, etc. citizenry) lay about 100 miles inland (east) from the port of Ephesus. Though once a large and prosperous city, changes in road structure led to its decline until the time of Paul when it was only a “small town.” Again, it is situated about 10 miles from Laodicea and 13 miles from Hierapolis on the Lycus River (cf. 2:1; 4:13).9

The church in Colossae was probably founded by a Colossian, namely, Epaphras (1:7; 4:12) who himself was, at least for a little while, a prisoner with Paul in Rome (Phmn 23). Epaphras had apparently traveled to Rome to inform Paul of the state of the church in Colossae, especially in light of the heresy developing within it (1:8).

The heresy in Colossae is not given a full description in the letter making it difficult to be certain of all its tenets and the precise emphasis given to its different aspects. For this and other reasons some scholars have contended that there is no one particular and identifiable heresy in Colossae. According to these scholars all that Paul was combating, for example, were superstitious, ascetic, and legalistic tendencies within the church. But, there are enough distinct features of the heretical movement to indicate that it was identifiable as such by the apostle and addressed as a “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2:8). We may assume, therefore, that it possessed definable features and a distinguishable—however much in its infancy—intellectual outline.

But what are some of the features of this false and obviously syncretistic philosophy? First, there is a Jewish element, but not of the sort that Paul faced in the Galatian churches (cf. Galatians and Acts 15). Here we see food and drink laws, as well as the observance of festivals and new moon Sabbaths (2:16-17). Second, there is probably a pagan element indicated by the worship of angels (assuming that 2:18 is a purely descriptive statement) and the demand for rigorous asceticism (2:18-19). This latter element is probably related to what later developed into full blown Gnosticism (2nd century). Gnostic thought is characterized by several tenets, some of the more important being: (1) the idea that matter is evil; (2) there is a gradation of beings emanating from the one pure and unknowable God (Plotinus?), and (3) salvation comes through knowledge and initiates a person into an elite group. The particular twist on these ideas in Colossians may have involved the notion that angels and principalities played a significant role in the giving of the Law and therefore regulated communication to and from God. The result was that they needed to be placated by strict legal observances.10

In response to these false notions Paul does the following: (1) he warns the Colossians not to be taken captive, i.e., kidnapped by such philosophy (2:8); (2) he exposes the transience, empty deceit, and arrogance of the philosophy (2:4, 8, 18, 22-23); (3) he presents the superiority of Christ, that is, his person, his saving work, and his complete sovereignty over the “emanations” (i.e., the so-called principalities and powers). It is through the death and resurrection of Christ—who is the “final reality” to which the OT points (2:16-17), the sole mediator between God and man, and the One in whom all the fullness of the deity dwells bodily (a notion repugnant to the Colossian errorists)—that we, by faith, are joined to all the fullness of God and his blessing (2:9-10). Christ is not primus inter pares; it is through him alone that we overcome indwelling sin (2:11-13; 3:1-4:6), are released from the condemnation of the law (2:14), gain victory over the power of demonic forces (2:15) and come to realize the bankruptcy of mere religious hype. Further, this is a message rooted in spiritual joy and is available to every man; there is no stoicism, mere asceticism, legalism, or libertinism in the Pauline conception of Christ’s ongoing work in his church (1:23).11 “If you have Christ, you have everything” is Paul’s response. “Don’t add anything else,” the apostle warns, “lest you distort, diminish, or denigrate the superiority of Christ, his gospel, or the Christian life.”

Teaching Outline

    1A. Introduction (1:1-2)

      1B. Salutation (1:1-2)

        1C. The Senders (1:1)

        2C. The Recipients (1:2a)

        3C. The Greeting (1:2b)

      2B. Paul’s Thanksgiving and Prayer for the Colossians (1:3-14)

        1C. Paul’s Thanksgiving for the Colossians (1:3-8)

          1D. The Thanksgiving Proper (1:3)

          2D. The Reason: The Colossian’s Reception of the Gospel (1:4-6)

            1E. Characterized by Faith that Springs from Hope (1:4a)

            2E. Characterized by Love that Springs from Hope (1:4b-5)

          3D. Summary: The Increasing Influence of the Gospel (1:6)

            1E. In the Entire World (1:6a)

            2E. Among the Colossians (1:6b-8)

        1F. They Understood the Grace of God in All It’s Truth (1:6b)

        2F. Epaphras Taught Them the Truth (1:7)

        3F. Epaphras Told Paul about the Colossians (1:8)

        2C. Paul’s Prayer for the Colossians (1:9-14)

          1D. The Prayer Itself: Spiritual Wisdom and Understanding (1:9)

          2D. The Goal of the Prayer: To Live Life Worthy of the Lord (1:10-12)

            1E. Bearing Fruit in Every Good Work (1:10a)

            2E. Growing in the Knowledge of the Lord (1:10b)

            3E. Being Strengthened with All Power (1:11)

            4E. Joyfully Giving Thanks (1:12)

          3D. The Foundation of the Prayer: The Salvific Work of God (1:13-14)

            1E. Rescuing from the Dominion of Darkness (1:13a)

            2E. Bringing Us into Kingdom of His Son: Redemption (1:13b-14)

    IIA. The Supremacy of Christ (1:15-2:23)

      1B. The Supremacy of Christ Over All Things (1:15-20)

        1C. He Is God (1:15a)

        2C. He Is The Heir (1:15b)

        3C. He Is The Creator (1:16)

        4C. He Is The Sustainer (1:17)

        5C. He Is The Head of the Church (1:18a)

        6C. He Is The Firstborn from among the Dead (1:18b)

        7C. He Is Supreme in All Things (1:18c)

        8C. He Is The Divine-Human Redeemer (1:19-20)

          1D. The Divine Fullness Dwells in Him (1:19)

          2D. He Redeemed All Things through the Cross (1:20)

      2B. The Supremacy of Christ’s Gospel: A Reminder (1:21-23)

        1C. We Were Separated and Enemies of God (1:21)

        2C. We Have Now Been Reconciled through the Gospel (1:22)

          1D. The Means of Reconciliation (1:22a)

          2D. The Goal of Reconciliation (1:22b)

          3D. The Condition of Reconciliation (1:23a)

          4D. The Universal Offer of Reconciliation (1:23b)

      3B. The Supremacy of Serving Christ (1:24-2:5)

        1C. Paul’s Privilege in Ministry (1:24-27)

          1D. To Suffer for Christ (1:24)

          2D. To Present the Word of God in Its Fullness (1:25-27)

            1E. It Was His Commissioning (1:25)

            2E. It Involved Presenting Divine Revelation to Gentile Saints (1:26-27)

        1F. Concerning Truth Not Previously Revealed (1:26)

        2F. Concerning Truth about the Mystery: “Christ in You” (1:27)

        2C. Paul’s Ultimate Goal and Strength for Ministry (1:28-29)

          1D. The Goal: To Present Everyone Perfect in Christ (1:28)

          2D. The Strength: All “His” Energy (1:29)

        3C. Paul’s Immediate Goal in His Colossian Ministry (2:1-5)

          1D. To Promote Unity and Encouragement (2:1-2a)

          2D. To Prevent Delusion (2:2b-5)

      3B. The Supremacy of Christ Over Empty Traditions (2:6-23)

        1C. The Command To Walk in Christ (2:6-7)

          1D. The Context: Having Received Christ as Lord (2:6a)

          2D. The Command: Walk in Him (2:6b-7)

        2C. The Supremacy of Christ’s Salvation over Empty Philosophy: A Warning (2:8-15)

          1D. Philosophy Not according to Christ (1:8)

          2D. Salvation according to Christ (1:9-15)

            1E. General Statement: Incarnation, Completeness and Authority (1:9)

            2E. Specific Statement: Circumcision and Baptism (1:10-15)

        1F. The Analogy of Circumcision (1:10)

        2F. The Analogy of Baptism (1:11-14)

        3F. The Triumph over Enemies (1:15)

        3C. The Supremacy of Christian Spirituality: A Challenge (2:16-19)

        4C. The Supremacy of Christ over Man-Made Religion: Inconsistency (2:20-23)

    IIIA. The Supremacy of Christ-Centered Living (3:1-4:6)

      1B. It’s Focus and Nature (3:1-17)

        1C. It Begins with a Focus on Christ (3:1-5)

        2C. It Involves Taking Off The Old Man (3:6-11)

        3C. It Involves Putting on the New Man (3:12-17)

      2B. It’s Affect on Every Relationship (3:18-4:6)

        1C. The Marriage Relationship (3:18-19)

          1D. The Command to Wives (3:18)

          2D. The Command to Husbands (3:19)

        2C. The Family Relationship (3:20-21)

          1D. The Command to Children (3:20)

          2D. The Command to Fathers (3:21)

        3C. The Slave-Master Relationship (3:22)

          1D. Admonition to Slaves (3:22-25)

            1E. The Command (3:22-23)

            2E. The Rationale with the Command (3:24)

            3E. The Warning with the Command (3:25)

          2D. Admonition to Masters (4:1)

      3B. It’s Evangelistic Nature (4:2-6)

        1C. Praying for the Advance of the Gospel (4:2-4)

        2C. Living Wisely Before Non-Christians (4:5-6)

    IVA. Paul’s Plans and Final Greetings (4:7-18)

      1B. Paul’s Plans: Tychicus and Onesimus to Come (4:7-9)

        1C. The Fact of Their Coming (4:7)

        2C. The Reason for Their Coming (4:8-9)

      2B. Final Greetings (4:10-18)

        1C. Special People (4:10-14)

          1D. Aristarchus (4:10a)

          2D. Mark, the Cousin of Barnabas (Mark 4:10b)

          3D. Jesus, Called Justus (4:11)

          4D. Epaphras (4:12-13)

          5D. Luke (4:14a)

          6D. Demas (4:14b)

        2C. Special Greetings (4:15)

          1D. The Brothers at Laodicea (4:15a)

          2D. To Nympha (4:15b)

          3D. To The Church in Nympha’s House (4:15c)

        3C. Special Request (4:16)

          1D. “Colossians” To Be Read in Colossae (4:16a)

          2D. “Colossians” To Be Read in the Church of Laodicea (4:16b)

          3D. The Church at Colossae To Read Laodicean Letter (4:16c)

        4C. Special Reminder (4:17)

        5C. Special Guarantee (4:18)


1 I.e., “words that occur only once.”

2 This judgment is measured primarily in light of the undisputed letters of Paul, namely, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians. There are an unusual number of genitival constructions (1:27; 2:11, 19; 3:24) and the preposition ejn (en) is given repeated, yet unexpected service (1:9-23 and 2:9-15).

3 See Paul J. Achtemeier, Joel B. Green, and Marianne Meye Thompson, Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 418.

4 See D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 332, n. 5.

5 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990), 575.

6 D. A. Carson, Douglas Moss, and John Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 333.

7 Guthrie, Introduction, 576-77.

8 Cf. Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 44 (Dallas: Word, 1982), in loc. electronic version.

9 See P. T. O’Brien, “Colossians, Letter to the,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 147.

10 See P. T. O’Brien, “Colossians, Letter to,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 146-47.

11 Cf. Curtis Vaughn, “Colossians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 166-68.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines