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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).