Colossians and Philemon Bible Study Lessons
The Epistle to the Colossians is one of the four “Prison Epistles” (see Ephesians, “Introduction”). It was written by the apostle Paul (1:1) while he was a prisoner in Rome awaiting trial before the emperor (4:3, 10, 18). Pauline authorship is not usually questioned, though some modern critics have challenged it on the basis that the book refutes a second-century Gnostic heresy. However, a careful reading of the book reveals not a mature Gnosticism such as that of the second century, but a less-developed mixture of Jewish, Hellenic, and mystical ideas. Following the strong internal claims of the epistle and the universal witness of the early church, we affirm Pauline authorship of this letter.
RECIPIENTS: Colossian Christians
Evidence suggests that though Paul himself had not visited Colosse at this point (2:1), Timothy and Epaphras (1:7) probably had evangelized the city and founded the church during Paul’s three-year stay in Ephesus while on his third missionary journey, A.D. 52–56 (Acts 19:1, 10, 26). Epaphras was the first to preach in the Lycus Valley after his conversion in Ephesus, and he continued to carry the burden of the churches at Colosse, Hierapolis, and Laodicea in his heart (4:13). The church probably had a majority of Gentiles in its membership (1:21, 27).
The most acceptable date for this epistle is A.D. 60–63. It was written about the same time as the letters to Philemon and Ephesus, and it has much in common with both epistles. All three were probably written before Philippians, the other Prison Epistle.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE COLOSSIAN HERESY: Gnosticism
The nature of the false teaching is not specified, though an inductive analysis of the epistle would point to an incipient type of Gnosticism. Gnosticism has two basic tenets: (1) salvation is by mystic, exclusive knowledge, and (2) matter is evil. At this stage, the system was quite undeveloped and diversified. Some of its specific principles were: (1) the observance of certain religious rites of a Jewish character (2:16); (2) the rigorous practice of specific dietary prescriptions (2:16, 21); (3) a tendency toward asceticism (2:20); (4) a reliance upon andpromotion of human philosophies and special knowledge (2:8, 12, 13); [5) the veneration of angels (2:18); (6) attacks upon the centrality of Jesus Christ (1:15–19; 2:9, 10); (7) an exclusivism (3:11). (See the note at 2:8 for additional information concerning this heresy.)
THEME: Combating False Teachings
The Epistle to the Colossians is written to combat an unspecified but insidious error that crept into the church at Colosse some six years after its founding. Epaphras visits Paul during his imprisonment in Rome and brings with him the alarming news that certain false doctrines and practices threaten the faith of the Colossian Christians. As a result, the Colossians are in danger of drifting from the gospel (1:23; 2:8). Thus Paul writes to combat certain false teachings about Christ and to give encouragement for the Christian life.
W. A. Criswell et al., eds., Believer’s Study Bible, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), Col 1:1.