Tradition and scriptural evidence teaches that the apostle Paul wrote the epistle to the Colossians. Paul, a former Pharisee, once persecuted and treated the early church as a false–teaching Jewish cult. However, while on his way to imprison Christians in a city called Damascus, Christ appeared to him in a shining light (Acts 9). In this vision, Christ called Paul to be an apostle and to carry the gospel to the Gentile nations. Paul suffered a great deal for this calling from both Jews and Gentiles (Col. 1:24). A prisoner in Rome at the time he wrote Colossians, around AD 60–62 (Acts 28), Paul wrote several other letters: Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon, often called the “Prison Epistles.”
Paul’s name appears three times in the letter (1:1, 23; 4:18), which supports his authorship. Unlike letters written today which give the author’s name at the end of the letter, ancient letters gave the name in the introduction. Colossians begins with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother” (1:1). Timothy did not co–author the epistle. His name is included because at its writing he accompanied Paul as his faithful disciple and “son in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2). Note that Paul includes his title as an “apostle of Christ” to show his official authority as a representative of Christ in order to address the issues happening in the church. In other letters, like Philippians or 1 and 2 Thessalonians, he simply addresses himself as Paul and sometimes adds the humble title of “servant of Christ,” which seems to reflect the gentler tone of these letters. The apostles were a select group of people who had seen Christ after his resurrection, were commissioned, and sent forth to build the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20).
Colossians shares some traits with another prison epistle. In Philemon, Paul mentions eight of the same people mentioned in the Colossians letter: Timothy, Aristarchus, Archippus, Mark, Epaphras, Luke, Onesimus, and Demas.1 In addition, Philemon contains evidence that Paul wrote it during his imprisonment. Many believe Paul’s fellow–servant Tychicus carried both letters to Colosse at the same time (Col. 4:7–9). This gives persuasive evidence that the apostle Paul authored Colossians.
Also, readers should note that the book of Colossians and the book of Ephesians contain many similarities. They both have a bifid format, discussing doctrine for the first couple of chapters and then turning practical. They both discuss the church as the body of Christ and Christ as the head (Eph. 1:23; 5:23; Col. 2:18–19). They share how the church has been raised with Christ (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1) and emphasize the church’s union with Christ (Eph. 1:3; Col 1:2). They discuss the church as a mystery (Eph. 3:3, 4, 9; Col. 2:2; 4:3). They include lengthy sections on the believer’s old man and new man (Eph. 4:21–24; Col. 3:9–10), family relationships, and the relationship between slaves and masters (Eph. 5:21–6:9; Col. 3:18–25). In fact, it has been said that 54 of the 155 verses in Ephesians are similar to verses found in Colossians.2 These similarities also support Pauline authorship.
As mentioned previously, Paul wrote this letter to the church in Colosse during his Roman imprisonment around AD 60–62. We don’t know exactly how this church began, but we do know that Paul had never visited it (2:1). Most scholars believe this church was founded during Paul’s three–year ministry in Ephesus, which lies about one hundred miles west of Colosse. Scripture says that, while Paul stayed in Ephesus, all who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:10). This would have included people who lived in Colosse, including Epaphras (Col. 4:12) and Philemon (Philem. 1:19). It seems that Epaphras heard the gospel in Ephesus and went back to Colosse to share the gospel, eventually founding the church.3
Paul obviously kept in contact with Epaphras, and when this church fell under attack by a cult, Epaphras went to Rome to tell his mentor about the situation (Col. 1:5–7). In response, Paul wrote the epistle to the Colossians. Tychicus, one of Paul’s fellow ministers, probably carried it from Rome to Colosse (Col. 4:7–8) intending to share it with the church in Laodicea (v. 16). Many commentators believe Tychicus also carried Philemon as well. Accompanying Tychicus was Onesimus, the runaway slave mentioned in the book of Philemon (Col. 4:9; Philem. 1:10). Paul gave instructions for the Colossians to share their letter with Laodicea and for the Laodiceans to share their letter with the Colossians. Colossians 4:16 says this: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.”
What letter from Laodicea? One cannot be dogmatic, but many believe it is the letter to the Ephesians. Early manuscripts of the epistle to the Ephesians do not contain the phrase “in Ephesus” (1:1).4 With the fact that this letter does not share any problems happening in the local church or mention any members of the church, many think Paul originally meant Ephesians as a circular letter that first went to the church of Laodicea. It may have been a letter addressed to the “Church” as a whole instead of to one specific congregation.
The very small city of Colosse sat in the province of Phrygia, located in Asia Minor, now modern–day Turkey, about ten miles east of Laodicea and thirteen miles southeast of Hierapolis (cf. 4:13). Within the city lived a large population of both Jews and Greeks, which probably accounts for the infusion of both Jewish legalism and Gentile mysticism (Col. 2:16–18) seen in the teachings of the cult attacking this church.5
As mentioned, Paul wrote his letter to address the false teaching of a cult attacking the church of Colosse. This cult seemed to follow an early form of Gnosticism. The Gnostics primarily denied the deity of Christ and the sufficiency of the gospel. They taught that in order for a person to be saved they must gain a higher form of knowledge, a higher form of wisdom. The Gnostic name actually comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means “to know.”
The Gnostics were very syncretic; their many beliefs originated from various sources. The system was infused with Jewish legalism, Greek philosophy, and mysticism (cf. Col. 2:8–23). Greek philosophical dualism believed that matter was inherently evil and that things of the spirit were good. This affected how they specifically viewed God and the doctrine of creation. Since they believed God was good and could not touch evil, they created a system of emanations or spirits descending from God. Each spirit or “god” was a lesser form of God and therefore a more evil form. As these emanations continued, a “god” far enough from God and less pure than God emerged who could create the earth. The Gnostics included Christ as one of these lesser emanations.
This philosophy greatly distorted the doctrine of Christ. Jesus’s humanity made it impossible for him to be God, they believed. They said that “Christ,” the emanation from God, descended upon Jesus at his baptism and left him before his death. Jesus Christ therefore was not perfect and was not fully God. He simply was a lesser form of God who did not create the earth and was not sufficient for salvation. One needed this higher form of knowledge in order to be saved. This teaching had shaken the Colossian church, causing their pastor Epaphras to seek Paul for counsel.
In the book of Colossians, Paul writes one of the strongest teachings on Christology seen in Scripture. He teaches Christ not only as God, but as the creator of all things. All things were created by him and for him (Col. 1:16). He reigns supreme over all creation, and he is sufficient for salvation (Col. 1:18, 2:10). If the book of Ephesians speaks to the mystery of the church, and Philippians promotes joy in suffering, then Colossians spotlights the supremacy of Christ.
Throughout the letter, Paul exalts Christ and teaches that Christ’s presence in the church is “the hope of glory” (1:27). Through Christ the believer was redeemed from sin and has victory over Satan (2:11–15). The believer died with Christ (3:3) and has been raised with Christ (3:1), and this relationship with Christ should radically change his life. The believer should think on heavenly things (3:1). He should take off the clothes of sin and put on the clothes of righteousness (3:5–17). The believer’s relationship with Christ should affect every other relationship. Paul gives instructions to husbands, wives, children, fathers, slaves, and masters (3:18–4:1). He speaks to the church on how to walk wisely around the unsaved (4:5–6). In contradiction to what the Gnostics taught, he lifts up Christ as the one in whom all the fullness of God dwells (1:19; 2:9), and the one through whom God is reconciling all things to himself (1:20–23). Surely, Christ should have supremacy (1:18) both in our lives and throughout the world!
The teachings in Colossians emphasize the good news of the gospel and the deity and full sufficiency of Christ. The book serves as an apologetic against the errant teachings that declare Christ is not enough or deny his deity. We find aspects of Gnostic theology in many of today’s popular teachings: Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and even Roman Catholicism. Again, the church must guard and defend the truth that Christ is God and that he is sufficient to fully reconcile all things to God. The gospel proclaims not Christ plus anything, but Christ alone. The book of Colossians remains relevant and needed today, even as Christ remains Lord and God. May its message challenge and encourage us. Thank you, Lord. Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Gregory Brown
1 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Handbook, Kindle Edition. (Thomas Nelson), Kindle Locations 10090–10093.
2 W. MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. A. Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995).
3 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Handbook, Kindle Edition. (Thomas Nelson), Kindle Locations 10110–10111.
4 Lumina: (August 28, 2014).
5 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Handbook, Kindle Edition. (Thomas Nelson), Kindle Locations 10090–10093.
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