I’m thankful for the opportunity to teach Colossians at Chapel Pointe this fall, and I’m also planning a series of posts on Colossians here on the website. Each post will link to a video here. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.
Why Study Colossians?
Although Colossians is known primarily for its profound teaching about Jesus in chapter 1, it was written to solve a pastoral problem. There was danger! The Colossians were being enticed by counterfeit teachings about angels and rules they needed to follow in order to have a fully satisfying relationship with God. When he wrote to them, instead of directly attacking those counterfeits, Paul exalted Jesus as the Creator and Reconciler of the universe and the Head of the church. Why would the Colossians accept a counterfeit if they realized they were already complete in Jesus?
Just like the Colossians, we hear enticing narratives today that promise us fulfillment but subtly draw us away from our participation in the Easter victory of Jesus, in whom all the fulness of deity dwells. As we study Colossians together, we pray to the Father that the Holy Spirit will exalt Jesus by convincing us that we are complete in him, and that he is sufficient to meet all our needs and to equip us to live out our new identity in our family relationships, in our church, and in the world.
So, let’s study Colossians!
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Go here for a teaching video that introduces this series on Colossians!
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Who is this guy Paul who wrote Colossians?
Put as briefly as possible, Paul was a converted Pharisee whom Jesus called to be his apostle to the Gentiles. Paul observed the ancient Jewish oral traditions that were often the reason why Jesus clashed with the Pharisees (Matt 15:1-9//Mark 7:1-13; Acts 26:5; Gal 1:14). We have no record of any dealings Paul may have had with Jesus. Paul appears first as one who approved the stoning of Stephen and who then began his own rampage against the church (Acts 7:58; 8:1-4; 22:20; 26:4-11). Acts presents Paul’s violent persecution of the early Christians as the setting for his miraculous conversion to faith in Jesus and call to preach to the gentiles (Acts 9:15; 22:21; 26:16-23). Paul’s mission was not to start a new religion for the gentiles—Christianity—but to show Israel that preoccupation with oral traditions was keeping the nation from fulfilling its role to be a light to the gentiles (Acts 13:47/Isa 49:6; cf. Isa 45:22; Luke 2:32). Paul described his call and mission several times in his letters (Rom 1:5; 15:16-32, Galatians 1-2; Philippians 3:4-11)
Bible teachers debate whether Paul was a missionary, a pastor, or a theologian. The answer is yes—as Christ’s apostle Paul evangelized much of the ancient Mediterranean world. Those who believed were formed into churches which Paul pastored both personally and through his co-workers. Paul theologized in response to the needs of these developing congregations. Paul was no “ivory tower” theologian—his most profound thinking came from reflection on the needs of his congregations. If you don’t believe that, think about why Paul wrote Romans 9-11, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1.
As Christ’s apostle, Paul was first sent to Israel to announce the good news of the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. That good news went all the way back to Genesis 12, where God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. Accordingly, throughout the book of Acts, Paul typically went to the Jews first and then to the gentiles in every city he visited (Romans 1:16; Acts 13:5, 14, 46-47 etc.). Here’s how Paul described the glory and the agony of his ministry to the Gentiles in Colossians:
I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church. God has given me the responsibility of serving his church by proclaiming his entire message to you. This message was kept secret for centuries and generations past, but now it has been revealed to God’s people. For God wanted them to know that the riches and glory of Christ are for you Gentiles, too. And this is the secret: Christ lives in you. This gives you assurance of sharing his glory. So we tell others about Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me. (Colossians 1:24-28 NLT)
What kind of book is Colossians?
When we look at our Bibles, we find the 27 books of the New Testament begin with the four Gospels and Acts. This canonical order is not chronological. It’s very likely that most if not all of the NT letters were written before the needs of the emerging church led to writing of the Gospels. 19 of the 27 books of the NT are letters, documents that applied the life and teachings of Jesus to specific issues being faced by local congregations.
In God’s providence a huge number of letters from the ancient Hellenistic world have been discovered in the arid sands of Egypt. Written on papyrus, these letters address any number of matters, ranging from involving news, romance, and family matters to business and legal issues. Although there’s some flexibility in how it plays out, these letters follow a consistent pattern:
- Greeting (superscript: author, recipients, greetings)
- Connecting (proem: news, thanksgiving, prayer)
- Body (message of the letter; this varies in length)
- Closing (Postscript: additional greetings, plans, benediction)
In the brief ancient letter pictured above, Besarion writes to Hierakion. First he expresses wishes for Besarion’s good health. Then he tells Besarion that he was unable to deliver Hierakion’s letter to Ualerion in Alexandria because Ualerion had left before Besarion arrived. The letter would be sent on to Hierakion in the countryside. Besarion extends greetings to the household of Diodorus, and wraps up the letter with a reference to the will of the god Serapis before saying farewell. On the back of the papyrus are the words “Besarion to Hierakion.”
Are you wondering why I’m bothering you with this useless information? Well, it’s not useless—it illustrates the pattern of every letter in the NT. For instance, when you look at the image of Besarion’s letter above, you are looking at something very much like the two letters mentioned in Acts (15:23-29; 23:26-30) and the two shortest letters in the NT, 2 and 3 John. Colossians and its “little sister” letter Philemon would have been similar in format, although with a longer, more developed message, using multiple sheets of papyrus, likely pasted together along the edges into a roll. Only later would sheets of papyrus be folded over and stitched together into a codex or book like we have today. Here’s how the pattern works out in these two letters:
Understanding the flow of thought in the main message or body of Colossians (1:15-4:6) is crucial for our studies here. Paul teaches the Colossians about
- the absolute supremacy of Jesus over the universe (1:15-23)
- how Paul has answered the call of Jesus on his life (1:24-2:3)
- how the teaching they are apparently considering contradicts the supremacy of Jesus (2:4-23)
- how to live a life consistent with their new identity in Christ. (3:1-4:6)
How did Paul come to write to the believers in Colosse?
As we learn from the book of Acts, after his three mission trips (13:1-21:17) Paul was falsely arrested in Jerusalem (21:18-23:22). He escaped a murder attempt there, only to be unjustly detained in Caesarea (23:23-26:32). Despairing of justice being done there, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to a hearing before the emperor in Rome (Acts 25:1-12). His voyage to Rome was interrupted by a shipwreck. After he arrived he spent two years under house arrest preaching the gospel (Acts 27:1-28:31). At this point the curtain falls and we do not learn the outcome of Paul’s case before the emperor. Luke’s agenda has been to show the full circle of the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Rome; Acts 1:8).
Many evangelical scholars believe that Paul’s Pastoral Letters (1-2 Timothy and Titus) do not fit into the narrative of Acts, and conclude that Paul was freed by Nero, conducted a fourth mission trip, writing the Pastoral Letters (1-2 Timothy and Titus), and perhaps finally reaching Spain as he had hoped (Rom 15:23-24). Early church authors believed this to be the case (1 Clement 5:5-7; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.22). After this fourth trip, Paul returned to Rome and was caught up in Nero’s persecution of the church. Nero falsely blamed Christians for the burning of Rome (Tacitus Annals 15:44). It was likely during these days (c. 65-67 CE) that both Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome (2 Tim 4:6-8).
Paul probably wrote the Prison Letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) from Rome during the two years he spent in Rome waiting for a hearing with the emperor (c. 60-62 CE). Each of these four letters mention imprisonment, along with people, places, and events that fit best into the Acts 28 setting (Eph 3:1; 4:1, 13; 6:19-20; Phil 1:13; 2:17; Col 1:24; 4:3, 10, 18; Phile 1, 9, 13, 23). Yet this is not certain because Paul spoke of additional additional imprisonments in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27.
The book of Acts does not mention Colossae. Most likely a Colossian named Epaphras started the church there (Col 1:7; 4:12). Perhaps Epaphras was converted during Paul’s 3-year ministry in Ephesus, a time when all Asia heard the gospel through Paul’s co-workers (Acts 19:8-10; 20:31; c. 52-55 CE). Apparently, several years later Epaphras visited Paul during his imprisonment in Rome and brought Paul news of the situation in Colossae (Col 1:7-8). This visit prompted Paul to write, bringing encouragement, teaching, warnings against false teaching, and information about his status to the Colossians.
What are some key “take-aways” from Colossians?
We will be emphasizing several key teachings in Colossians in our future studies. Here are some of them:
- Prayer: Paul explains how he is praying for the Colossians and asks them to pray for him. We need to pray with Paul’s priorities in mind.
- Instruction: Paul teaches the Colossians that Jesus is the Creator of the original universe and the Reconciler of the current fallen universe. We need to take a deep dive into these transforming truths about our Lord and Savior.
- Warning: Paul warns the Colossians about a deceptive teaching that threatens them. We need to be aware of current false teachings about Jesus.
- Exhortation: Paul writes to encourage the Colossians to live out their new identity in Christ in community with each other. We need to avoid the old vices and embrace the new virtues that mark our participation in Christ’s new humanity.
- Mission: Paul shows the Colossians how they have become a part of God’s global mission and encourages them to fulfill their calling. We need to be involved in God’s ongoing mission today.
I hope you will stick with us in future posts as we unpack Paul’s teachings in Colossians about our completeness in Christ. Please comment below if you have any concerns or questions about Colossians that you’d like to see addressed here.
If you’d like to delve more deeply into the message of Colossians . . .
- How I Need You is a song that reminds us that Jesus was there before time began and that he is enough for us today.
- Here is a short video on how to read the NT letters in historical context.
- Here is a short video on how to read the NT letters in literary context.
- Here is an introduction to Colossians, along with several video teachings, courtesy of the Gospel Coalition.
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And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.
Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body. So you also are complete through your union with Christ, who is the head over every ruler and authority. (Colossians 2:6-10 NLT)