Colossians: Introduction

This summer, I’ll be teaching an adult Bible class on Colossians and Ephesians. I’ve decided to start with Colossians, because I’m very familiar with Ephesians and not so familiar with Colossians.

In fact, it’s a letter that’s not studied that often in the Churches of Christ. It’s a little too short for a quarter, and much of its content is treated more extensively in Ephesians. And so I’ll start in Colossians.

Ray Vander Laan explains,

In contrast to the Hierapolis, the ancient city of Colosse (or Colossae) was known for its cold water. Located about eleven miles from Laodicea, Colosse was built at the foot of Mt. Cadmus, which towered more than nine thousand feet high. Colosse was known for a purple dye called colissinus and for its many, ice-cold snow-and-rain-fed streams that rushed down from the snow-covered peak of Mt. Cadmus. People in the fertile Lycus River Valley commonly talked about this wonderful, invigorating water.

Founded several hundreds of years before the Hierapolis, Colosse’s inhabitants worshiped many gods, including Artemis, Athena, and Demeter. The city was in serious decline by the time of Paul and John because of the growth of Laodicea and Hierapolis. It is known by Christians today because Paul wrote a letter to the Colossians, which was the home of his friend Philemon, and his slave Onesimus.

Colossae moundLaodicea, Colosse, and Hieropolis were all near each other, in the Maeander River valley (from which we get the word “meander”), but Laodicea had become the larger city. Paul likely never visited Colosse himself. The likelihood is that Epaphras had taken the gospel there from Ephesus, another Hellenistic city in Asia Minor.

The site of the city is long abandoned, and the location has never been excavated.

It’s hardly surprising that the young church struggled given the city’s pagan culture and idolatry. It should also be noted that Asia Minor was a relatively wealthy part of the Roman Empire at the time, being on major trading routes between Asia and Europe. The cities were often very cosmopolitan, meaning they reflected multiple nationalities and multiple religions.

But Colosse was not a city. It evidently sat on top of the hill (a “tell,” or archaeological site) and couldn’t have been large. The population was Phrygian (a region of Asia Minor), Greek (Greece was not far to the west and had ruled the territory for centuries before Roman conquest), and Jews, who’d settled there during the time of Antiochus the Great (223-187 BC).

The problems confronted

Colossians is what they call an “occasional letter,” meaning it was written because of specific events, rather than being an abstract explanation of theology. It was written to deal with particular problems that had arisen in the Colosse. Pau wrote from prison in Rome, the letter likely being carried by the runaway slave Philemon. The church in Colosse met in the home of Onesimus, who owned Philemon.

The error Paul confronted appears to have been a blend of Judaism with paganism. Of course, many of the original converts were Jewish, but Jews who’d been in pagan lands for centuries. They may well have adopted a distinctive blend of Judaism blended with Greek thought.

The error elevated angels as the being through whom the Law had been given. The angels were seen as demigods and the gatekeepers of God — that is, the angels had to be appeased so that they’d permit communications with God. Obedience to the Law was a tribute to the angels, who insisted on Sabbath observance, festival observance, circumcision, and ascetic practices.

F. F. Bruce writes in the New International Commentary series,

Christians were urged to go in for this progressive “wisdom” (sophia) and “knowledge” (gnosis), to explore the hidden mysteries by a series of successive initiations until they attained perfection (teleiosis). Christian baptism was only a preliminary initiation … .


4 Responses

  1. Jay,

    I know you are starting with Colossians, but I would appreciate your recommendation for your top three or four favorite commentaries on Ephesians.


  2. Since the class is on Colossians and Ephesians, it surely makes good sense to start with Colossians. You earn a grade mark of 100.

  3. The very first adult bible class I taught (early eighties) was in Colossians. I have always enjoyed the book. Looking forward to the series.

  4. Brian,

    It turns out it’ll be Colossians and Philippians. The church has decided to cover Ephesians congregation-wide in the fall.

    I’m not big on commentaries as teaching resources. I use them to help solve difficulties — the meaning of a word, to sort through competing theories of interpretation. But I teach Pauline epistles from a larger understanding of Paul from many sources and my own studies.

    Of course, I’ve dealt with Ephesians here many, many times — but never comprehensively. Re the role of women, check out Buried Talents, the series or the ebook online on this site.

    If you perform a search on “Ephesians” on the home page here, you’ll get a number of articles, some focused on Eph 5:19 and many focused on Eph 4 — which I’ve dissected more than once. The series beginning with covers much of c. 4 – 6.

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