Epistle to the Colossians
Towns of the Lycus Valley
Colossae was a small town in the beautiful Lycus Valley about 100 miles east of Ephesus, in what is now modern Turkey. In this river valley stood three important cities—Laodicaea, Hierapolis and Colossae—where Christians lived.
Laodicaea, most prosperous of the three, was self-satisfied and blind to its true condition.
These Phrygian cities were part of the Roman province of Asia. Hierapolis and Laodicaea were six miles apart, in full view of each other; Colossae was twelve miles farther up the river.
The Lycus Valley was notorious for earthquakes (Laodicaea being destroyed several times). The waters of the River Lycus and its tributaries were impregnated with chalk, accumulating over the countryside. “Ancient monuments are buried; fertile land is overlaid; river beds choked up and streams diverted; fantastic grottoes and cascades and archways of stone are formed by this strange capricious…power… destructive…creative…Fatal to vegetation, these incrustations spread…over the ground…a singular striking feature…of beauty.” (Lightfoot)
The volcanic ground was fertile. Areas not covered with chalk were magnificent pasture land feeding large flocks of sheep. Here was the center of the world’s woolen industry. Laodicaea was famous for producing fine-quality garments. Something in the chalky waters made them especially suitable for dyeing cloth, for which Colossae was famous.
The City of No Importance
All three cities had been equally important, but fortunes changed. Laodicaea became the political and financial headquarters of the district, splendidly prosperous. Hierapolis thrived with and its notable spa. Volcanic chasms poured forth hot vapors and springs, famous for medicinal qualities.
Colossae had once commanded the roads to the passes through the Cadmus range. Both Xerxes and Cyrus had halted there with their invading armies, and Herodotus referred to her as “a great city of Phrygia.” But the glory departed. Today Hierapolis and Laodicaea are discernible from ruins of some of the great buildings which still stand. But not a stone shows where Colossae stood. Her exact site is not definable. When Paul wrote, Colossae was a small town. She was the most unimportant town to which Paul ever sent a letter (Lightfoot).
Jews in Phrygia
Antiochus the Great had transported two thousand Jewish families from Babylon and Mesopotamia into the regions of Lydia and Phrygia. They prospered, so more of their countrymen came. In Paul’s day, the number of these Jews may have reached 50,000.
The Colossian Church
No record exists of the beginning of the church at Colossae. Paul neither founded nor visited it. During Paul’s three years in Ephesus (Acts 19) two prominent men from Colossae—Epaphras and Philemon—became Christians. But Paul said the Colossians had seen his face (2:1). Yet the founding of this church undoubtedly sprang from Paul’s direction.
During that time in Ephesus, the whole province of Asia was evangelized; all its inhabitants heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:10). Colosssae’s founder may have been Epaphras, Paul’s fellow-servant and the faithful minister of the Colossian church; but Paul held himself responsible for its spiritual condition and knew well its needs and dangers. A Gentile Church
The Colossian church was mainly Gentile. The phrase estranged and hostile in mind (1:21) suggests those who had once been strangers to the covenant of promise. In 1:27 he speaks of making known the mystery of Christ among the Gentiles, addressing the Colossians. In 3:5-7 he gives a list of their sins before they became Christians; they are Gentile sins.
The Heresy at Colossae
The trouble at Colossae had not become serious nor widespread. Paul grasps this evil before it has time to contaminate all of Asia.
Exactly what the heresy was which threatened the life of the Colossian church is not clear. It may have been the tendency to introduce philosophies into the Gospel. There were Greeks and Jews in the Colossian church as well as “native” Phrygians, and many wanted to cling to their own ideas, trying to incorporate them into Christianity. Paul knew this struck at the heart of the Christian faith. By trying to retain circumcision, their food-laws and festivals (2:1,16), the Jewish Christians brought the whole basis of man’s acceptance with God into question. The worship of angels, considering them as intermediaries (2:18), directly challenged the supremacy of Christ.
(a) It was heresy which attacked the adequacy and supremacy of Christ. Nowhere else does Paul write such a lofty view of Jesus: Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God; in him all fullness dwells (1:15,19); in him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:2). in him the new seed was born in a natural body (earthen vessel) and raised in a spiritual body (2:9; I Cor. 15:44).
(b) Paul stresses the part Christ played in creation: By him all things were created (1:16); in him all things harmonize (1:17).
(c) Paul emphasizes the humanity of Christ. Through his fleshly body and his death he was able to reconcile those alienated from God and to do his redeeming work by presenting them holy and unblemished before his Father (1:22). He was truly human flesh and blood.
(d) There was an astrological element in Colossae’s heresy. (2:8 and 20 [Authorized Version]) Paul says that they were walking after the rudiments of the world when they ought to be dead to them. They were slipping back into an elemental kind of Christianity rather than going forward into being mature Christians, reverting into the elemental spirits of the world, exalting the stars and planets.
(e) The powers of the demonic spirits in this heresy were frequently referred to as principalities or authorities—Paul’s names for them (1:16; 2:10,15). The ancient world believed in demonic powers: every natural force—wind, thunder, lightning, rain—had its demonic superintendent.
(f) The Colossian heretics hoped to spoil men’s minds with empty deceit (2:8). They felt that the simplicities of the Gospel needed an “advanced” philosophy added to them.
(g) They insisted on the observance of special days and rituals—festivals, new moons, sabbaths (2:16).
(h) There was an asceticism, laying down laws about food and drink (2:16). Its slogans were: “touch not; taste not; handle not” (2:21). These teachings violated Christian freedom by insisting on various legalistic ordinances.
(i) The Gnostic heresy of spirit versus matter as a reality made men careless of chastity and caused the Christian to think lightly of the sins of the flesh and spirit (3:5-8).
(j) Lastly, there was snobbery. In 1:28 Paul laid down his aim: to warn every man in all wisdom; and to present every man mature in Jesus Christ. The phrase every man is reiterated. Paul’s aim is to make him mature in all wisdom. The heretics limited the Gospel to some chosen few!
Lessons for Us
Paul revealed the highest reaches of his thought to this unimportant town of Colossae. In doing so he checked a tendency that could have wrecked Asian Christianity and done irreparable damage to the faith of the whole church. Here are some important lessons in Paul’s letter:
(1) Our Lord’s sacrifice (of his flesh) was complete; no other redemptive price for mankind was necessary. The afflictions left behind were not because of the insufficiency of our Lord’s sacrifice. The sins left behind were those of the world of mankind. Our Lord did not apply his own merit as a covering directly upon the world of “unbelievers” at his first advent.
Paul states, “I Paul am made a minister; who now rejoices in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church”—Nestle & Marshall (1:23,24). (2) Words that are deceiving and enticing to the listener could not be compared with the hopes set forth for the Gospel age, establishing the church in faith. Beliefs that would carry them into the glorious Kingdom set them on a course to be followed throughout their lives (2:4).
(3) All who are in Christ Jesus have received him with the understanding that he (Jesus) was God’s representative; and he was sent to be the Redeemer of Adam’s race and, by and by, to be the Deliverer of all mankind from the power of sin and death (2:6) [R5557]. Paul urges those inclined to continue in this faith not to try to combine earthly philosophies with this heavenly message (v. 8). They had received Christ as God’s anointed and he was sufficient in all things (vs. 3,9).
(4) One must become established while growing up in the character likeness of our Redeemer, and his roots of faith must reach down into the deep things of God’s Word. Satan will attempt to divert our minds into other channels. But the plan of God is only one, given for our instruction in righteousness (II Tim. 3:16,17).
(5) The words of verse 15, chapter 2, “The hostile princes and rulers he shook off from himself, and boldly displayed them as his conquests, when by the cross he triumphed over them” (Weymouth), place the paradox of the crucifixion in its strongest light—triumph in helplessness, glory in shame.
(6) In 2:18, Paul instructs the Colossians to let no man beguile them from the prize. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” “God hath set the members in the body of Christ as it hath pleased him.” The body, having nourishment, eating of the living bread, and drinking of the cup, increaseth with the increase of God’s blessings.
(7) “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of the world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle this! Do not taste that! Do not touch that other thing!’…These are…human commands and teachings. Such regulations…lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (NIV 2:20-23).
(8) Paul, in 3:2, is not addressing the world. None would understand the things above unless first of all he had heard of Jesus as the Redeemer, renounced sin, and fled to Jesus for refuge—justification. He must have consecrated his justified life, presenting it a living sacrifice to the Lord (Rom. 12:1), and been accepted of the Lord and begotten of the holy Spirit and thus have started his experience as a new creature in Christ Jesus [R3913]. Weymouth equates this with “Give your minds to the things that are above,” [cease to concentrate your energies and your thoughts on mundane ordinances (Lightfoot)], “not on things that are on the earth” (3:2).
(9) Express good intentions truthfully to each other. The heart must be pure and full of love. If the unloving, unkind heart, full of evil surmising and malice, were to be expressed frankly, it would add to the trouble of the world.
By putting off the deeds of the old man (3:13), the apostle urges first the purifying of the heart and then candor. By putting on the new man, we have “put out of position of authority” the old man, renewing the new man with knowledge, replacing the wisdom of this world with the wisdom from above [R4894].
(10) By putting on the “bowels of mercy” we develop a disposition of largeness of heart toward everybody and every thing—saints, neighbors, friends, relatives, enemies, brute creation [R4829].
(11) Bear with one another’s peculiarities of disposition, freely forgiving, learn to correct ourselves (2:13). The Lord’s body is viewed arrayed in these qualities of heart, and love is the “girdle” which holds in place the folds of the robe of Christ’s righteousness with its various graces. These graces are not matters of courtesy or policy. We will not be perfected in heart nor fit for the Kingdom until these graces of our will are bound by cords of love—for the Lord, righteousness, the brethren, and the world. We do the will of God by praying for knowledge and wisdom to know his will. Love is the spirit of the Lord. Let the peace of God rule in our hearts (Phil. 4:7) as the regulator of our hearts.