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An Introduction and Overview of Colossians

Each Lord’s day I have the privilege of ministering the word of God to the saints at Christ is King Baptist Church. It is an unparalleled joy for me to spend hours each week immersed in the study of a biblical book, and then out of the overflow of my own communion with the Lord to read, explain, and apply the word of God to His people.


John MacArthur has stated that the pastor must focus on the depth of his ministry and the Lord will take care of the breadth of his ministry. In light of that, I’ve decided to start putting my sermon manuscripts into blog/commentary form for those of you who may want to read through them. My hope is that the Lord will use these expository blogs to multiply the impact of my own study and preaching for His glory.


This first post will serve as an introduction and overview of Colossians. And then, in the next post we will begin to study the text verse by verse, considering the first two verses. So, for now, here is an introduction and overview of the book.


What I want to do in this first post is consider five matters of introduction; five important elements of the epistle that will aid us in our study of the book over the next several months. I want to consider the author, the place and date of writing, the recipients, the purpose/theme, and the outline.


1. The Author


First, let’s consider the author. That is, who is it that wrote the book of Colossians? And the answer is, the apostle Paul. And we know that for two reasons. There are two lines of evidence that substantiate the Pauline authorship of Colossians. First is what we would call the internal evidence, and then secondly the external evidence. By the internal evidence I mean evidence found within the epistle and the Bible itself. And by external evidence I mean evidence from outside of the Bible, primarily from church history.


First, let’s look at the internal evidence. How do we know that Paul wrote Colossians? Well, because the author claims to be Paul. And he does so in at least three places. The first place he does so is in the very first verse. The first word of the epistle is Paul: “Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ”. The author clearly claims to be the apostle Paul. And then, in verse 23, the author says this: “I, Paul, was made a minister”. And then finally, in the very last verse of the book we read this: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand” (4:18). The author unequivocally claims to be the apostle Paul.


But in addition to the internal evidence there is also the external evidence. The early church unanimously affirmed that Paul was the author of Colossians. Early church leaders such as Eusebius, Origen, Tertullian, and Irenaeus, just to name a few, all claimed that Paul wrote the book. With the claims of the epistle itself and the unanimous claims of church history there is no good reason to doubt the Pauline authorship of Colossians. The apostle Paul wrote the book, and he did so under the superintendence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21; 3:15-16).


2. The Place and Date of Writing


So that’s the author. It was written by Paul. But now, secondly, let’s consider the place and date of writing. When was it written and from where was it written? These are two issues that must be considered together.


First, it must be noted that the epistle was written from prison. Colossians is one of four books, along with Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon, that are considered the prison epistles. That is, letters that Paul wrote while in prison, all of which were written around the same time.


Three times in this very letter Paul implies that he wrote from prison. All three times are found in chapter 4. The first place he affirms that he wrote from prison is in verse 3. Starting in verse 2, Paul writes, “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; 3 praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned” (v. 2-3). Paul affirms that he had been imprisoned for speaking the gospel. And thus, he wrote from prison.


The second place he affirms that is in verse 10. There we read, “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings”. Here Paul states that Aristarchus was his fellow prisoner, implying that he himself was a prisoner. Finally, in verse 18 Paul writes, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my imprisonment”. Paul wanted the Colossians to remember his imprisonment because he was currently in prison and he wrote from prison.


Also, it must be noted that Paul wrote all four of the prison epistles around the same time. The parallels between the epistles demonstrate this. For example, in all four epistles he states that he was in prison. We’ve already seen that in Colossians, but now let’s consider the other prison epistles. In Ephesians chapter three verse one Paul writes, “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles”. Paul wrote Ephesians as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. So, like Colossians, Ephesians was written in prison.


And then in Philippians chapter 1, starting in verse 12, Paul writes,


“Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear” (Php. 1:12-14).


Clearly Paul wrote Philippians from prison. Therefore, it is likewise counted among the prison epistles. The same can be said of Paul’s letter to Philemon. In the very first verse we read, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother”. Paul wrote to Philemon as a prisoner. And thus, these four letters are rightly deemed the prison epistles.


Another parallel between these four epistles is that many of the same individuals are mentioned in them. For example, consider what Paul says about the delivery of the letter to the Colossians:


“As to all my affairs, Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord, will bring you information. 8 For I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts” (4:7-9).


So Tychicus was going to be, more than likely, bringing the letter to Colossae along with some information concerning Paul’s circumstances. And notice who would be coming with him: “and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number” (v. 9). Notice that not only would Onesimus be coming with Tychicus, but he was also “one of your number” he says. What does that mean? Onesimus was from Colossae.


Now compare that with what Paul wrote to Philemon: “I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment” (Philem. 10). In other words, Onesimus had made his way to wherever Paul was in prison and was converted through Paul’s preaching. And where did Onesimus come from? He came from Colossae. He was one of their number. And he:


“formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. 12 I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart, 13 whom I wished to keep with me, so that on your behalf he might minister to me in my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. 15 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (vv. 11-16).


So Onesimus was a runaway slave of Philemon’s. He was converted though Paul’s preaching and was now being sent back to Philemon. He was going back to Colossae, to Philemon, no doubt with Tychicus and the letter of Colossians as well. So no doubt Colossians and Philemon were written together from prison. And then there is Ephesians. To the Ephesians Paul wrote,


“But that you also may know about my circumstances, how I am doing, Tychicus, the beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, will make everything known to you. 22 I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know about us, and that he may comfort your hearts” (Eph. 6:21-22).


So Tychicus, who along with Onesimus was charged with carrying the letters of Colossians and Philemon, was also charged with carrying the letter of Ephesians. Clearly then these letters were all written, along with Philippians, around the same time.


So Paul wrote from prison. But where was he imprisoned. There have been a few suggestions set forth by scholars and theologians. The first suggestion is that he wrote from prison in Caesarea. Now it is true that Paul was at one time incarcerated in Caesarea. That is recorded for us in the book of Acts (Acts 23:23-35). However, it seems unlikely that this was the designation from which Paul wrote.


One reason to reject this suggestion is due to that fact that when Paul wrote the prison epistles he was expecting to soon be released. Remember, Paul almost certainly wrote Philemon and Colossians around the same time. And to Philemon Paul wrote, “At the same time also prepare me a lodging, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given to you” (v. 22). So Paul seems to expect that he would soon, through the prayers of Philemon, be released from prison and make his way to see him in Colossae. However, when Paul was incarcerated in Caesarea there was no expectation that he would soon be released. In fact, there he had to appeal to Caesar and be transported to Rome (Acts 25:11). And therefore, it seems unlikely that Paul wrote from Caesarea.


A second suggestion is that Paul wrote while incarcerated in Ephesus. However, there is no good reason to accept this position, for there is no evidence that Paul was ever imprisoned in Ephesus. In Acts 19 Luke records Paul’s three year stay in Ephesus and never once mentions anything about an imprisonment. This position doesn’t hold any water.


The third option is that Paul wrote from a Roman prison. However, the question is, which imprisonment? Paul was imprisoned in Rome on two occasions. The first time is recorded for us at the end of the book of Acts (Acts 28:11-31). The second time is not actually recorded in the Bible but is recorded in church history. Church history informs us that during his second imprisonment, sometime around 64 to 68 A.D. Paul was beheaded in Rome. And that is the background for 2 Timothy.


So which was it? The first or second imprisonment? It seems likely that it was the first imprisonment. Again, Paul seemed confident that he would soon be released, and that was a possibility for his first imprisonment, for he was eventually released. However, there was no real possibility of escape during his second imprisonment. In fact, he knew that he would soon die. He told Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Tim. 4:6).


Clearly during his second Roman imprisonment Paul’s outlook was much different. He knew the time of his departure was near and that he would soon die. Whereas during his first imprisonment he was confident he would soon be released. So, in light of all of that, it seems best to conclude that Paul wrote Colossians during his first Roman imprisonment around 60 to 62 A.D.


3. The Recipients


Paul wrote from a Roman prison around 62 A.D. But now that brings us to a third matter of introduction, and that is the recipients. To whom did Paul write this letter? To whom was it addressed? “To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae” (1:2). The letter is addressed to the believers at Colossae. Colossae was a city in the region of Phrygia located in the Roman province of Asia Minor, which is modern Turkey. It, along with Laodicea and Hierapolis, was one of three cities in the Lycus Valley (4:13). Colossae was located about 100 miles east of Ephesus. By Paul’s day it was a rather insignificant city.


Paul had never been to Colossae. He is not the one who founded the church. In chapter 2 verse 1 he includes the church at Colossae among those who had never seen his face. So how did the church at Colossae get its start? A few verses in chapter 1 answer that question:


“because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel 6 which has come to you, just as in all the world also it is constantly bearing fruit and increasing, even as it has been doing in you also since the day you heard of it and understood the grace of God in truth; 7 just as you learned it from Epaphras” (v. 5-7).


The Colossians heard the gospel from Epaphras. He is a very important character in this epistle. Paul describes him as “our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf”. Epaphras was a faithful servant of Christ whom Paul dearly loved. And Epaphras is said to be “one of “your number” (4:12). That is to say, he was from Colossae and was a member of the church there. He prayed earnestly for their maturity and had a deep love for them (4:12-13).


More than likely Epaphras, who was from Colossae, had made his way to Ephesus, which was only 100 miles west of Colossae there in Asia Minor. In Acts 19 Luke records Paul’s three year stay in Ephesus during his third missionary journey. And in Acts 19:10 Luke states that “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks”. More than likely that included Epaphras. He was probably converted through the preaching of Paul and became his companion. And then he was later sent back to his hometown in Colossae where he preached the gospel and founded the church there. There is also a possibility that he planted the churches in Laodicea and Hierapolis as well. But in any case, that is probably how the church at Colossae got its start. These believers at Colossae, who had never seen Paul’s face, were the ones to whom he addressed this letter.


4. Purpose/Theme


Which brings us to a fourth matter of introduction. We’ve seen the author, the place and date of writing, the recipients, and now fourthly, let’s consider the purpose and theme. Why did Paul write this epistle? What motivated him to do so? What’s the purpose of this letter? Well from surveying the letter it seems clear that Paul was writing to refute a dangerous heresy that was a potential threat to the churches of the Lycus Valley. Apparently Epaphras had traveled to Rome, where Paul was imprisoned, and had informed him of this heresy. That is why in chapter 4 Paul says that Epaphras sends greetings to the Colossians (4:12). Although he was one of their number he was currently with Paul in Rome where he could inform him of this heresy.


We see evidence of this throughout the epistle. In chapter 2 he warns them of those who sought to “delude [them] with persuasive argument” (v. 4). He also warns them of empty philosophy, the traditions of men, and man-made religion (v. 8, 23). It would appear that this heresy had yet to infect the church, for he says that they were disciplined and stable in their faith (2:5). They hadn’t been deceived as of yet. This letter, then, is preventative. It was meant to prevent them from being deceived by the false teachers.


Let’s briefly consider the heresy that was threatening the church at Colossae. Scholars have struggled to figure out exactly which heresy this was. It contained many elements. Let me identify the four marks of this heretical teaching. It was marked by Jewish legalism, pagan mysticism, rigorous asceticism, and philosophical dualism.


First, it was marked by Jewish legalism. We see evidence of that in chapter two. In verse 11 Paul mentions circumcision, saying,


“and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (2:12-13).


That seems to imply that the heretics were promoting the ceremonial rite of circumcision as a means to salvation, much like the Judaizers did. Paul’s response asserts that the circumcision that saves has nothing to do with cutting away the flesh, but of becoming a new creature through union with Christ.


Then in verse 16 he writes this: “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (2:16-17). Apparently, the false teachers were demanding that Christians observe the holy days of the old covenant and adhere to the Jewish dietary laws. However, Paul affirms that those laws were mere shadows pointing to a greater reality, namely Christ. We don’t have to observe the Jewish holy days. We don’t have to observe the dietary laws. Christ has come, fulfilled them, and done away with them all.


But a second mark of this heresy is pagan mysticism. We also see that in chapter 2. In verse 18 Paul says, “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind”. That’s mysticism, claiming heavenly visons and worshiping the angels. They claimed that through their worship of the angels they had received heavenly visons which formed the authoritative basis for their heresy. Paul says don’t let anyone defraud you of your prize by delighting in these things.


A third mark of this heresy was rigorous ascetism. Paul deals with that in chapter 2 as well:


“If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (v. 20-23).


That’s asceticism, denying yourself of certain pleasures and beating your body, all in an attempt to restrain the flesh. But Paul says ascetism can’t do that. Those things are of no value against fleshy indulgence. They are of no help in the fight against sin.


A fourth and final mark of this heresy is what we could call philosophical dualism. This was popularized by a fifth century philosopher named Plato, so that it became known as Platonism. Platonism had a huge influence on Greek philosophy. By the second century one of the most dangerous heresy’s that threatened the church was called Gnosticism, which held to a form of Platonism. Basically, they said that matter is inherently evil, and spirit is good. Therefore, there is no way God, who is pure spirit and transcendent light created the evil, material world. Instead, they postulated that there were many emanations that proceeded forth from God, or lesser gods that came from him, some good and some evil, like angles and demons. And it was one of the evil emanations, whom they deemed the Demiurge, that created the material world.


Consequently, the Gnostics denied both the deity and humanity of Christ. They taught that Jesus wasn’t fully God. Instead He was merely one of the good emanations, or gods, that have come from the true God. Nor was He truly man. Instead, they asserted, He only appeared to be a man, like a phantom. And thus, they denied both the deity and humanity of Christ.


You can also see hints of this in chapter 2. In chapter 2 he actually calls this heresy a philosophy. In verse 8 he writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ”. And then in verse 9 he says, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form”. Now, why would Paul have to say that? Because the Colossian heretics denied that. This deception centered around an erroneous understanding of the nature of Christ.


The word fullness, pléróma in the Greek, was a word used by the Gnostics. They asserted that the pléróma, or the fullness of the divine essence, attributes, and powers was spread out among many lesser gods. However, here Paul states that the fullness is not spread out among many lesser gods. Instead the fullness of deity dwells in Christ in bodily form. The word deity, theotés, refers to that which makes God God. In Christ, the fullness of the divine nature, the fullness of the divine attributes, the fullness of the divine essence, dwelt in bodily form. That is to say, Christ is fully God and fully man. And with that statement Paul refutes the philosophical dualism of the heretics.


Now what particular group was this in which all of these elements came together. That is hard to say. Some have concluded that Paul was dealing with an incipient Gnosticism, an early form of that heresy that came to full fruition in the second century. They certainly held to that form of philosophical dualism. Many of them also practiced asceticism and were into mysticism. So it’s certainly possible.


Another sect that some have identified this teaching with is that of the Essenes. The Essenes were a sect within Judaism. Like the Colossian heretics, they were into mysticism. They were also strict ascetics. They held to a form of dualism. And they also held to a form of Jewish legalism. And therefore, it is certainly possible that this is what Paul was dealing with. In any case, it’s impossible for us to say dogmatically, or with certainty which group this was. At the end of the day, regardless of which group it was, they were denying the sufficiency of Christ and therefore posed a threat to the churches in the Lycus Valley.


Paul’s response to this heresy was this letter in which he sought to refute the errors of the heretics. And at the heart of this heresy was a denial of the sufficiency of Christ. Christ isn’t enough. You need to worship the angels, be circumcised, observe holy days, beat your body, and so forth. So Paul writes to uphold and affirm the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. That, then, becomes the theme of the letter. In a word, the preeminence of Christ (1:18). The preeminence, supremacy, and sufficiency of Christ. In the words of chapter 3 verse 11, “Christ is all, and in all”. And we will consider that more as we work our way through the letter.


5. Outline/Structure


But now, finally, one more matter of introduction. We’ve seen the author, the date and place of writing, the recipients, the theme and purpose, and now finally, the outline or structure of the book. Colossians can really be broken into three parts. There’s an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. The introduction begins in chapter 1 verse 1 and runs all the way through verse 12. The body begins in verse 13 of chapter 1 and goes to verse 6 of chapter 4. And then the conclusion encompasses verses 7-18 of chapter four. Below you can find a more detailed outline.


I. Introduction (1:1-12)

A. Paul’s Salutation (1:1-2)

B. Paul’s Thanksgiving (1:3-8)

C. Paul’s Requests (1:9-12)

II. Body (1:13-4:6)

A. Doctrine (1:13-2:23)

1. The Preeminence of the Person and Work of Christ (1:13-23)

2. The Nature of Paul’s Ministry (1:24-2:5)

3. The Sufficiency of Christ (2:6-15)

4. The Insufficiency of Man-made Religion (2:16-23)

B. Duty (3:1-4:6)

1. The New Self (3:1-11)

2. The New Self in the Church (3:12-17)

3. The New Self in the Home (3:18-4:1)

4. The New Self in the World (4:2-6)

III. Conclusion (4:7-18)

A. Info Concerning the Delivery of the Letter (v. 7-9)

B. Greetings from Paul’s Companions (v. 10-14)

C. Greetings to the Laodiceans (v. 15)

D. Final Exhortations (v. 16-17)

E. Closing Words (v. 18)

Conclusion


So, the author is Paul. He wrote from a prison in Rome around 62 A.D. He addressed the letter to the church at Colossae. And he wrote the letter to refute the errors of the false teachers and to affirm the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. That is a bird’s eye view of Colossians. And this overview, I trust, will help us as we work our way through the book over the next several months. And in the next post we will begin our study of this book by considering the first two verses. It’s a rich book and I look forward to digging deep into it with you. And my prayer is that as we do we would, through this study, see and behold the glory of the preeminent Christ so that we might love Him more, hold fast to Him, and become more like Him, all to the glory of God.

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