Colossians Study – Session 1

CrossPointe Community Church – Denton, TX

January 13, 2013 - Larry Reynolds, Teacher
When we begin to study any portion of the Scripture, the great temptation we face to is to begin directly with the text.  There is a tendency to think, “Don’t waste my time with a lot of unnecessary information, just tell me what the Bible says.”  The problem with that kind of thinking is that there is some background information we must have in order to have a clear, accurate understanding of what the Scripture says.  That is why it is necessary to begin a study of a biblical book, not with the text itself, but with some basic information about the book.

·        Who wrote it?

·        When was it written?

·        From where was it written?

·        What was the occasion that caused it to be written?

·        What is the main purpose, the over-arching theme of the book?

So, I want us to begin our study of Colossians by looking at some key background information about the book.  I realize this is not highly edifying material, but it is an important foundation which needs to be laid if we are to understand the deeper message and meaning of this wonderful New Testament letter.


Colossians is one of a group of four New Testament letters that have come to be known as “The Prison Epistles.  The other three letters in this group are Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon.  In each of those four letters Paul makes specific reference to his being a prisoner. (See Colossians 4:10, 18)

·        In style the prison epistles tend to be more meditative, more tranquil than most of Paul’s other letters.  That’s understandable giving the setting in which Paul was when he wrote the letters.

·        In content the prison epistles tend to focus more on the growth and spiritual health of believers than on the salvation of unbelievers.  Another way of saying that is they are more devotional than evangelistic.

·        From where were they written?  The Scripture does not tell us precisely where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote these letters, so we are left to speculate.  I think from the biblical text we can assume they were written from one of two places.

o   Caesarea – In Acts 21 Paul was arrested by the Temple authorities in Jerusalem.  After a near riot in Jerusalem, the Romans transferred Paul to Caesarea, the Roman headquarters in 1st century Palestine.  A large contingent of Roman soldiers (see Acts 23:23) escorted Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea to keep him safe from the Jewish authorities who were intent on killing him.

§   During the time Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, he appeared before Felix, the Roman Governor of the area, and his wife Drusilla.  Felix, who did not decide Paul’s case, kept him under arrest in Caesarea for approximately two years. (Acts 24)

§  Felix was succeeded by Festus had Paul brought before him, and Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard by Caesar in Rome. (Acts 25)

§  King Agrippa and his wife, Bernice, came to Caesarea and Festus told him about Paul’s case.  Paul appeared before them (Acts 26) and King Agrippa said that Paul had done nothing deserving death or imprisonment.  But because he had appealed his case to Rome, that’s where he would go.

Some say Paul wrote the prison epistles during the 2+ years he was being held in Caesarea.  The argument against that is that in Pilemon 22 Paul seems to indicate he was about to be released.  But during his imprisonment Caesarea, Paul obviously knew that he had appealed his case to Caesar and that he was headed to Rome.  Therefore, he would have known that his release was not imminent. 

o   Rome – The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome awaiting trial before Caesar.  This is what some NT scholars refer to as Paul’s first Roman imprisonment.  The traditional view is that Paul wrote the prison epistles during that time.  The speculation is that Paul was vindicated in his trial before Caesar, was released and traveled further in his missionary work, perhaps going as far as Spain.  Then, as the climate in the Roman Empire under Nero turned against the Christians, Paul was arrested again.  During this second period of imprisonment in Rome he wrote the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) where he is clearly not optimistic about being released.  And that at the end of this second Roman imprisonment he was martyred in Rome.  That is the view I hold.

·        When were they written? – Since Paul was released from prison sometime after writing the prison epistles, it is likely there were written before two major historical events took place which contributed to Rome turning against Christianity.  In A.D. 64 a great fire broke out in Rome for which Nero was blamed.  He needed a scapegoat for the fire, so he blamed it on the Christians.  This began in Rome a terrible persecution of Christians.  In A.D. 66 the Jews in Judea revolted against Rome.  Since the Romans made little distinction between Jews and Christians, the Jewish revolt added to the misery of Christians in the empire.  Most NT scholars think Paul wrote the prison epistles sometime around A.D. 62 or 63, before those two events took place.

So, it is my position the prison epistles, including Colossians, were written by Paul from Rome sometime around A.D. 62.


I want to narrow our focus now from the prison epistles as a whole to Colossians in particular.  There are three key questions that need to be addressed before we begin looking at the text itself:

1.     What events led to Paul’s writing Colossians?

2.     What was Paul’s primary purpose (what did he want to accomplish) in writing the book?

3.     What is over-arching message or theme of the book?


What events led to the writing of Colossians?  Writing a letter, even one that seems relatively short in comparison to letters such as the one Paul wrote to the Romans, was a rather laborious task in the 1st century.  We are so conditioned to computers that generate documents rather easily that we tend to forget that to sit down and write a letter by hand on parchment (animal skin) or papyrus (the center of reed plants that had been pressed out and dried) was a difficult task.  Therefore, it was not something that was done lightly.  Usually some event or series of events took place that led up to the producing of such letters.  In the case of Colossians, two things happened that led to Paul’s writing this letter:

1.     Paul received a visit while he was in prison in Rome from a man named Epaphras.  We will come across that name in Colossians 1:7 where Epaphras is described as the person who first shared the Gospel with the people in Colossae.  He is mentioned again in Colossians 4:12 being described there as “ of your number...” meaning he was from Colossae.  It is speculated that Epaphras came into contact with Paul during the extended time Paul ministered in Ephesus on his third missionary journey.  Paul taught in Ephesus for two years and Acts 19:10 says that during those years, “...all who live in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”  Colossae is about 100 miles from Ephesus which was the economic center of that part of Asia.  Perhaps Epaphras was a business man who traveled to Ephesus, met Paul, became a Christian, went back to Colossae and began a church there.  Epaphras apparently went to Rome to visit Paul in his imprisonment and give him news about the church at Colossae.

2.     Paul’s contact with Onesimus who is described in Colossians 4:8 with the same phrase as used of Epaphras, “ of your number...” meaning he was also from Colossae.  Onesimus was a run-a-way slave, whose master, Philemon, was also in the church at Colossae.  We are not told how Paul and Onesimus happened to meet up in Rome.  More than likely, Onesimus sought out Paul to help him reconcile with the master from whom he ran away.  Paul’s letter to Philemon, another of the prison epistles, urges Philemon to treat Onesimus with grace.  Onesimus, along with Tychicus, delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  It is possible that the letter to Philemon was delivered at the same time.

Those two events remind me that God does not do anything by accident.  Things that may seem like coincidences to us or even absurdly unjust to us may be part of God’s larger plan for our good and the advancement of His Kingdom.


What was Paul’s primary purpose in writing Colossians?  I think there are three primary reasons Paul wrote this letter.

1.     To express his personal interest in and concern for the Colossians. (Colossians 2:1)  These were people Paul had not met.  There is no record of Paul ever going through Colossae.  He wanted these people to know that he cared about their spiritual welfare as deeply as he did about the spiritual welfare of those people he knew personally.

2.     To warn the Colossians against reverting back to their old, pagan ways. (Colossians 2:6)  The newness of their conversion was wearing off.  They were entering that period every new believer goes through of coming down from the initial spiritual high of conversion and settling into a pattern of life.  Paul reminded them of the importance of not going back to their old practices.  They were to continue their walk in Christ.

3.     To refute a false teaching that was threatening the Colossians church.  This was Paul’s primary reason for writing.  From some things Paul says in chapter 2 we can get at least a glimpse of this false teaching.

a.     It was characterized by a pseudo-intellectualism (2:8)

b.     It de-emphasized the person and work of Jesus (2:9-10)

c.      It was legalistic in nature (2:16, 21)

d.     It was ascetic in nature (2:18, 23)  [It viewed the body as evil and needing to be subdued and punished]

e.      It emphasized the worship of angels (2:18)

f.       It found its authority in subjective religious experience (2:18) rather than the objective revelation of God in Christ (2:19

Paul wrote to refute this false teaching which was undermining the spiritual well-being of the Christians in Colossae.


·        What is the over-arching message or theme of the book?  The theme of Colossians is the absolute supremacy and the complete sufficiency of Jesus Christ.  Essentially, Paul’s answer to the false teaching in the church is Jesus.  Over and over in the four chapters of this letter Paul reminds us what Jesus does for us...


o   Jesus reveals God to us - “...He is the image [the exact representation] of the invisible God...” [1:15]


o   Jesus cleanses us from sin and makes us acceptable to God - “... He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” [1:22]


o   Jesus gives us stability and direction for living - “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith...” [2:6-7a]


o   Jesus fulfills the deepest needs of our hearts - “ Him you have been made complete (or full)...” [2:10a]


o   Jesus gives us new life - “ have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God...” [3:3] and “ have been raised up with Christ...” [3:1]

     The theme of Colossians is Jesus Christ...A.T. Robertson, the NT scholar, calls Colossians Paul’s “full length portrait of Christ”


Before we begin looking at the text of Colossians, I want to point out one final thing by way of introduction.  There are some striking similarities between Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and Paul’s letter to the Colossians.  For example:

·        As we have seen, they are both prison epistles and were written about the same time.

·        They have similar content.  54 of the 155 verses (about 1 out of 3) in Ephesians show a likeness to Colossians.  There are 72 marginal references in Colossians to Ephesians and only 88 marginal references to all of Paul’s other letters.  They deal with many of the same topics—the person of Christ, the church, family relations, etc...

·        The are similar in structure.  Each has a doctrinal or theological section followed by a practical application or ethical section.

·        They were delivered by the same messenger—Tychicus.

It is not inaccurate to view Colossians as something of a condensed version of Ephesians, like Galatians is a condensed version of Romans.


With that background in mind, let’s get to the text itself. (Distribute outline and overview the structure of Colossians)




1.     Salutation (1:1-2) – We usually place salutation and signature at the end of our letters.  But in NT times was customary for writer to identify himself and offer a salutation at beginning. Practical reason...scroll form...have to roll down to very end if name withheld to the end as we do...  Also, of course did not have letterhead and envelopes as we do to allow recipient to identify quickly the sender.


1)    Writer – The very first word in the letter is “Paul.”  Even though the text bears his name and even though the strong tradition of the church is that Paul wrote this letter, a few people have questioned Paul’s authorship of Colossians.  They base their questions on what I believe to be very flimsy ideas.

                                                             i.      Vocabulary differs somewhat from Paul’s other letters...can be explained by the subject matter Paul addresses...

                                                           ii.      Heresy confronted reflects a 2nd century Gnosticism (a system of thought that stressed the importance of knowledge and the inherent evil of the physical)... however, Gnosticism had its roots in 1st century...

                                                        iii.      Christology seems more advanced than in Paul’s other letters...but certainly does not conflict with Paul’s other letters and may be a reflection of the heresy was confronting...


“an apostle” – Since Paul had never been to Colossae, begins by establishing his right to give them instruction... ”apostolos” means “one sent on a mission”...commissioned by and given the full authority of the sender...


“of Jesus Christ” – Gave Paul the right to speak on behalf of and with the full authority of very first phrase Paul establishes his authority to correct authoritatively any erroneous teachings to which they were subjected...


Question:  Are there apostles in the church today, people who speak with the full authority of Christ?  Obviously, there are those who call themselves “apostles.”  The mainstream of Christian thought is that once the Scripture was put together, it serves the purpose of the role of “apostle” in the early church...


“by the will of God” – Paul did not appoint himself an apostle... did not earn the title through hard work...was not elected or appointed by was God’s doing and God’s alone...


“and Timothy our brother” – Timothy did not compose Colossians even though he may have been the secretary who actually put the words on the parchment or papyrus...(see 4:18)...the fundamental requirement of Christianity is brotherliness – one who stands beside another as his/her own flesh and blood...Timothy was Paul’s brother in good times and bad times...


2)    Readers“ the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae...”


                                                             i.      Their character

·         “saints” - “hagios” and it comes from the same word family as the word we translate “holy”...and it is one of the most misunderstood words in the Bible...if stopped average person on the street and asked that person to explain what a saint is, would probably say a saint is someone who  has an extra measure of religious commitment or has done something outstanding or unusual for God...the ordinary understanding of the word is that saints are those who are super-spiritual, super-Christians, who rise above everyone else...however, that is not at all the NT meaning of the word...literally the word means to be separated, to be set the Christian context it means to be separated from our sin and to be set apart for service to God...and in that sense, all Christians are is important to understand that we do not become a saints by virtue of our own actions or commitments...the title of saint is conferred upon us by virtue of our relationship with God...when you became a Christian, you became a saint in the sense that you were set apart for service to God...


·        “faithful” – Literally, “full of faith”...means to be a true believer...implies loyalty, specifically loyalty to Christ...


·        “brethren” – Term of affection...denotes a common parenthood...God is their Father...


                                                           ii.      Their location - “in Christ who are at Colossae”

·        If using NASB will notice words “who are” are in italics...means not in Greek text but added for clarity...literally the text simply says “in Christ in Colossae”...this phrase is a reminder that Christians always live in two dimensions, in two worlds...

·        They were “at Colossae”...that is they lived in a physical place...Colossae was a small town located on the Lycus River in the Roman Province of was about 100 miles east of writer describes it as the least important place to which at New Testament letter is addressed...[Vaughan, p.20]

·        However, the recipients of this letter didn’t just live in an obscure, unimportant village...they also lived “in Christ”...that phrase is used by the Apostle Paul in various forms at least 164 times in his writings...he speaks of being “in Christ” or “in the Lord” or “in Him” over and over again...”in Christ” describes the spiritual location of believers...while we live in a physical world, we also live in spiritual relationship with Christ...

·        The implications of that for our lives are matter where we go, no matter what we do, no matter how lonely or isolated we may feel, we are never separated from Christ...He is our constant companion...He is always there...He never forsakes us...never abandons us...never leaves us alone...

·        David expressed this idea in the beautiful 139th Psalm when he wrote: “Where can I go from Thy Spirit?  Or where can I flee from Thy presence?  If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there.  If I take the wings of dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Thy hand will lead me, and Thy right hand will lay hold of me.” [Psalm 139:7-10]

·        Paul expressed the same concept in Romans 8 when he wrote:  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


3)    The Greeting“Grace to you and peace from God our Father.”

Typical Pauline is found in this precise form in all of Paul’s letters except for the letters to this greeting we are reminded of two great blessing enjoyed by every true believer...

·        First, we have the blessing of “grace” has been said, and I think correctly so, that the word “grace” sums up Christian theology... one writer defines the word as “the free and undeserved giving by God to [people] what they cannot achieve themselves” [Moulton, quoted by Vaughan, p.20] is a reminder that in Christ we have something we could never have gained on our own initiative — the unmerited, undeserved favor/ acceptance/approval of is no wonder that John Newton, the converted slave trader, referred to it as “Amazing Grace” in the famous hymn...

·        Second, we have the blessing of “peace”...this word, which is used more than 100 times in the NT, doesn’t mean merely the absence of carries the idea of a calmness of spirit, quiet trust in the Lord, in the midst of conflict...on the night before His crucifixion Jesus promised His followers peace...said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” [John 14:27]


Two things need to be noted about this greeting.

·        It is “…from God our Father…” – These are blessings God gives His people…

·        The order is important…first there is grace and then peace…peace is the result or by-product of experiencing God’s grace…


Question for thought:  What does Paul’s description of the recipients of Colossians say to you about your own identity and about how you should view your fellow believers?