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 Introduction to Paul's Letter to the Colossians

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The three cities of the Lycus valley

Colossae was about one hundred miles (150 km) east from Ephesus. It was one of the three towns in the valley of the River Lycus: Colossae, Laodicea and Hieropolis (now Pamukkale), situated near the place where the Lycus flows into the River Maeander. These cities were in the old kingdom of Phrygia, which later became part of the Roman province of Asia. Hieropolis and Laodicea were only six miles (10 km) apart, facing each other across the Lycus River. Colossae was twelve miles (19 km) further upstream and was smaller than the other two towns. Paul mentions the other two towns in his letter (Col 4:13-16).

The Lycus valley was notorious for earthquakes. Laodicea was destroyed several times by earthquakes, but was so rich and independent that it was rebuilt without the help offered by the Roman government. An earthquake in AD 60 devastated the area (just before this letter was written). The water in the River Lycus is heavily impregnated with chalk, so that it is deposited in the river valley. All over the countryside there are amazing natural formations of incrusted chalk, in the shape of grottoes, cascades and archways of stone. They are visible from over twenty miles away. But they are destructive, as they cover fertile land, block and divert streams and rivers, and kill vegetation.

The wealth of the Lycus valley

As this was a volcanic area, the soil was very fertile, making excellent pasture land, as long as it was not covered with the chalk encrustations. This pasture was used for rearing sheep, so that the area became famous for its wool. Laodicea in particular was famous for its glossy black wool, and high quality clothes. Closely allied to this was the dyeing industry. The chalky water was particularly good for dying clothes. Colossae was particularly famous for its dyeing industry, so that a dye known as 'Colossinus' was named after the town.

Colossae - the smallest of the three cities

Colossae lay at the foot of Mt Cadmus, on the main highway from Ephesus to Tarsus, where the road from Sardis joined. It was a defensible place with an abundant water supply. Originally Colossae was an important commercial centre, but by the first century, Laodicea and Hieropolis had expanded and prospered, leaving Colossae to become a minor market town. Laodicea became the political centre and a prosperous financial centre. Hieropolis became a trade centre and a well-known spa, because there were many hot springs in this volcanic area. Thousands of people came to bathe and drink the waters which were believed to have medicinal qualities.

The decline of Colossae happened as a result of the road from Sardis and Pergamum being rerouted through Laodicea. The city was moved to the new town of Khonai, now Honaz. Colossae was the smallest centre to which Paul wrote a letter, and is now uninhabited. The site of Colossae was discovered in 1835. There is a large tell on the south bank of the Lycus River north-west of Honaz, but it has not been excavated.

The people of Colossae

In 200 BC, Antiochus III the Great had transported two thousand Jewish families from Babylon and Mesopotamia into this region, later many Jews from Palestine joined them. At the time this letter was written, there were probably around 50,000 Jews. The long-term settlement by Jews had resulted in a religious and cultural mixture. The other inhabitants of the town were native Phrygians, together with settlers from Syria and Greece - giving quite a diverse population. The religions in Colossae were also diverse. The Greeks and Phrygians worshipped Cybele, the mother goddess of Asia, as well as Isis and Apollo. The cult of Mithraism was also prominent. The Jews had their own synagogue.

The church in Colossae

The church was not founded by Paul, and he had probably not visited them before he wrote the letter. He groups the Colossians and Laodiceans with those "who have not seen me face to face" (2:1).

The church was started probably as a result of Paul's mission to Ephesus in AD 57, on his third missionary journey, when "All the residents of Asia heard the word of God" (Acts 19:10). The church was probably founded by Epaphras, who was a citizen of Colossae. He was certainly the pastor of the church, with oversight of the churches in Laodicea and Hieropolis (1:7, 4:12-13). There were also Jews from Phrygia in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, who may have first brought the gospel back to their home region (Acts 2:10)

Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and Onesimus were also from Colossae, and the church probably met in Philemon's house (Phm 1). Archippus was possibly the leader of the church at Laodicea (4:16-17). Philemon was also one of Paul's converts (Phm 19).

The church was predominately Gentile. Paul describes their past lives as, "once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds" (1:21). He also described how he made know the mystery of Christ to the Gentiles, meaning the Colossians (1:27). Also, the sin list contains characteristically Gentile sins (3:5-7).

In the Book of Revelation, the letter to Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22) shows the church shared the prosperity of the area, but that its witness was blunted. The church is described as 'lukewarm', just as its water supply was also lukewarm. Hieropolis had medicinal hot springs, Colossae had fresh cold water. But Laodicea's water came through stone pipes from hot springs, so it was lukewarm by the time it arrived.

Later there was a large turning away and rejection of Paul in Asia (2 Tim 1:15), fulfilling the warning Paul gave to the Ephesian elders that false teachers would rise from within the church (Acts 20:29-30). However, church tradition suggests that Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven, moved to Hieropolis with some of his prophetic daughters.

In the second century, the Montanists arose in Phrygia. Montanus, their leader, predicted that the new Jerusalem would soon descend from heaven to Pepouza, a small village thirty miles north of Colossae. Montanism was also known by the church as the Phrygian heresy.

Date of the letter

Colossians, together with Ephesians, Philippians and Philemon (the prison epistles) were written from Rome around AD 60-62, about five years after the church was founded. Paul refers to his imprisonment (4:3,18). The letter to Philemon was delivered together with the letter to the Colossian church, by Tychicus (4:7), who is bringing Onesimus with him (4:9).

Occasion of the letter

Epaphras had visited Paul in Rome (1:7), where he was also imprisoned (Phm 23). He conveyed the sympathetic greetings of the Colossians to Paul and to report a danger that was threatening the church. The gospel was bearing fruit and growing (1:6), but false teaching was being introduced which could obscure the gospel. Paul writes to refute the error by affirming the supremacy of Christ and the completeness of the church in him (2:9-10). His response is relatively mild, compared with Galatians or 2 Corinthians, perhaps because the false teaching had not yet made much headway into the church.

Style of letter

Colossians has a rich vocabulary, using fifty-five words which do not occur in any other of Paul's letters, and thirty-four words which occur nowhere else in the NT.

Nature of the false teaching

Describing the exact nature of the 'Colossian Heresy' is one of the great problems of NT scholarship. The church knew what Paul was talking about, but we do not to the same extent. We only have Paul's answer, not a description of the problem. What is clear, is that the Colossians were mixing Christianity with other religious thought and philosophies (2:8). So the basic problem seems to be syncretism, a blurring and perversion of the gospel, which Paul warns against.

The letter to Colossae addresses a series of questions which are particularly relevant to today’s world. This include: Is Christ the only true Saviour? Are the mystical claims and 'revelations' of other religions valid? Is Christ the only way to find truth, or just one of many ways? How can we find the fullness of religious experience? These questions were being asked in Colossae in the 60's AD, but also in modern society with rise of the New Age movement, with a great and growing interest in astrology and eastern mysticism.

In Colossae, as today, there was a market place of religious ideas, from which people pick and chose what they like, regardless of whether these ideas fit together into a logical framework. In this way of thinking, there is no room for any claim to exclusive revelation, such as Jesus claiming to be the only way to God.

The basic concern of Hellenistic thought was asking how man could escape from the lower, evil, earthly realm and reach the heavenly, spiritual realm. They believed that this was achieved through ecstatic experiences. Mystery cults, involving strict discipline in initiations into secret rites promised freedom from the evil body, enlightenment and union with the god or goddess of the cult.

Syncretistic teaching, an amalgam of various religions was a characteristic of Greek and Roman times, where newer and older religions and religions from different areas were combined. When Christianity was introduced into the area, it also was incorporated into the local religious scene. It was just another cult to be combined into the mixture which already existed. Phrygia, which contained a mixture of cultures and peoples, was a sure centre for syncretism.

The Hellenistic and mystery religions called themselves 'philosophies', hence Paul's warnings (2:8). The temptation was for Christians to come under the power of other heavenly intermediaries, and to go beyond Christ through knowledge from visions.

In apocalyptic literature and the writings of Philo, fasting was used as a preparation for visionary experiences. Part of the vision would be participation in the heavenly worship by angels, and being filled with the fullness of the deity being worshipped.

The false teaching probably contained an early form of gnosticism. It was not fully developed gnosticism, which did not rise until the early second century, but was more of a syncretism of non-conformist Jewish elements from apocalyptic Judaism with speculative Hellenistic ideas.

Paul was concerned for the truth and integrity of the gospel. He took their language and terminology and filled it with his own content. He also the slogans and catch-words used by the false teachers. These are some of the characteristic words that Paul uses: fullness (pleroma), knowledge (gnosis), and elemental spirits (stoicheia).

The Colossian Heresy

From the letter we can detect the following aspects of the false teaching:

They were claiming they could provide Spiritual 'fullness'. The new teachers were arriving in the Colossian church, claiming that they would complete and perfect the simple and elementary faith which Paul had introduced to Colossae. Paul’s response was to say, that “In Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:19), “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (2:9), and “You have come to fullness in him” (2:10).

The teachers were offering spiritual freedom or deliverance through their teaching, so Paul reminds them of their freedom in Christ (1:13, 2:15). They claimed special insight into the powers of evil, and ability to give the believers special protection from them, so Paul declares that Christ is the head of every ruler and authority (2:10), that He disarmed the rulers and authorities (2:15), and warn against the dangers of following the elemental spirits of the universe (2:8,20).

In response to their demands for asceticism and fasting, Paul argues against self-abasement and worship of angels (2:18), and warns against extreme asceticism (2:16,20-21,23). They were offering further secret initiation into a deeper 'knowledge' of God and experience of his power, so Paul prays that they will be filled with the knowledge of God (2:9). They were claiming superiority over ordinary believers, so Paul says, “Do not let anyone condemn you ...” (2:16), and “Do not let anyone disqualify you” (2:18). Because they were causing divisions in the church, Paul appeals for unity (2:1-5, 3:11). There also seems to be a strong Jewish element, including observing the law, circumcision, food regulations, observing the sabbath and new moon celebrations (2:11,14,16,20-22).

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.