- Merlis Wiebe
The Colossian church was a group of believers formed without Paul’s leadership. During his third missionary journey, Paul is thought to have spent three years preaching and teaching at Ephesus where a man named Epaphras may have come to salvation. It is likely this man played a key role in the founding the church (Col. 1:4-7; 4:12).
What was the purpose of Paul writing to them?
There was good reason for Paul to write the letter. As per his norm, a good dose of encouragement was always in season with whomever he related to, and this occasion is no different (1:3-6). The primary purpose, though, was to defend the true gospel against a Christological heresy that had crept into the church by false teachers, and as a result, the letter to the Colossians is an amazing work on the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ to the believer (1:9-2:15).
As the Gospel spread from Jerusalem to Asia Minor after Pentecost, the churches that were born often included both Jews and Gentiles. This presented some challenges as the new believers at Colossae were being melded together into the likeness of Christ. Paul called the church to love each other (2:2), to stay rooted in the true gospel (2:6-7), to use a thankful heart as a vehicle to flourish (2:7), and not to let past baggage of their previous religious backgrounds dictate practice in the church (2:16-23). Rather, they were to set their eyes and hearts on Jesus and on heaven where their identity as believers was already rooted (3:1-4).
There could well have been converts from Judaism and those with pagan backgrounds that brought past religious and worship practices into the church (2:16-17): “worshipping of angels,” “elemental spirits,” and the deceivers “sensuous mind” (2:8, 18). All of these things had distorted the message and purity of the true Gospel, hence the emphasis on the supremacy of Jesus Christ and Him only (2:9-10).
Where was the Colossian church?
The city of Colossae was located in Asia Minor approximately 100 miles east of Ephesus in the Lycus Valley. It was once a significant economic centre, but Ephesus now held a significant advantage having direct seaport access. There were three cities in the immediate area: Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis. Paul mentions all three in 4:13, and there is good evidence in 4:16 that there were three separate congregations. Nonetheless, Paul addresses them together.
When and where was this letter written?
Paul is thought to have written this letter during his two years under house arrest in Rome around 62 AD (Acts 28:30-31) while waiting for his trial before Caesar. During this time, Paul was allowed visitors and took the opportunity afforded him to write to the fledgling congregations to encourage and instruct their leaders. It is likely that Epaphras had come to bring Paul encouragement and report on the state of the Colossian church, which then Paul wrote in response to. One of Paul’s ministry team (he always worked with a team), a man named Tychicus, was instructed to carry the letter back to the Colossian church along with the letter to the Ephesians, and also to deliver a personal letter to an influential man named Philemon at Colossae (Col. 4:7, Eph. 6:21).
Why does this letter matter today?
The Western church has many of the same core challenges today as Colossae had in 62 AD, only they come masked in ways that are unique to us. Take for example the simple pressure of letting ‘good’ things distract us from Bible preaching on Sunday mornings. Mission reports, announcements, and skits are all examples of good things that could so easily supplant Bible exposition from the pulpit, take our eyes off of the authority of Scripture, and keep our affections below (3:2). We must keep our eyes on Jesus, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
Paul’s reminders to believers on day-to-day conduct in Colossians are also still very applicable to us today. The beauty of Holy Spirit inspired writing is that in a few short chapters, such as Colossians, instruction for living can be general enough to apply to all, yet specific enough to cover every aspect needed to live a God-pleasing life.