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The Epistle of Paul to the Colossians

Updated on January 13, 2010

The Epistle of Paul to the Colossians, is the 12th book of the New Testament, written by Paul while he was imprisoned in Rome toward the end of his life. Paul had never been in Colossae and was not known personally to the Colossians (2:1). Undoubtedly they had received the news of Christianity during Paul's stay in Ephesus, when the whole province of Asia was evangelized (Acts 19:10).

Colossae was one of three cities in the Lycus River valley of the Roman province of Asia (part of Anatolia in modern Turkey). The others, Hierapolis and Laodicea, were on opposite sides of the river. All three were wealthy cities, located in a center of the clothing trade.

Reason for Paul's Letter

Paul always wrote to meet a particular situation. In this case, we learn from his admonitions that the Colossians were evidencing a tendency toward certain false teachings that could undermine their faith. There was much good in the Colossians. They had faith and steadfastness and love (1:4,8; 2:5). They were producing the harvest of a Christian life (1:6). But Paul stresses a present threat to their faith. If we note the things he emphasizes, we can perhaps find the sources of that threat.

Paul first speaks of the total adequacy of Jesus Christ, who is the very image of God and in whom all fullness dwells (1:15,19; 2:2,9). The apostle also emphasizes the part that Jesus played in the Creation (1:16,17), while at the same time noting his total humanity: he was a flesh and blood man (1:22; 2:9).

Then, since the Colossians leaned toward astrology, Paul speaks of the elemental spirits of the stars that, according to Colossian belief, controlled the lives of men (2:8,20). Like others of their time the Colossians believed in demons, principalities, and powers (1:16; 2:10,15).

The particular heresy that Paul saw threatening the Colossians emphasized the worship of angels and fear of demons (2:18). It had a philosophical character, too (2:8), as well as ascetic elements, notably in its laws on food and drink (2:16,21). The heresy also had an aspect that made men careless of purity, chastity, and morality (3:5,8). It produced an intellectual snobbery against which Paul set the Christian conviction that Christianity is for every man (1:28).

We now must ask what had gone wrong at Colossae. For the answer we must take into consideration the fact that traces of Judaic law still lingered there, particularly in dietary practices. These, combined with certain aspects of a Greek tendency of thought called Gnosticism, were probably responsible for many non-Christian practices.

The Gnostic Heresy

The basic belief of Gnosticism is that matter and spirit existed from the beginning. All things were made from matter, and this matter was and is essentially flawed and evil.

If matter is evil, then God (who is spirit) cannot himself have touched it. Instead, from God there came a long line of emanations until one was reached that was so distant from, and so ignorant of, God that it could touch matter, and it created the world: the world was made by an inferior, an ignorant, and a hostile god.

Paul rejects this theory. He states that behind creation is Christ. The principles of redemption and of creation are the same.

Gnosticism had its repercussions on belief in Jesus. According to Gnostic belief, Jesus was not unique; he was simply one (even if the greatest) of a long chain between the world and God. Since it requires philosophical knowledge to encompass the elements of that chain and arrive at God, real religion is only for the philosopher.

Concomitantly, if matter is evil, the body is evil. Therefore, to the Gnostics Jesus had no real body: he was not a man; he was simply a ghost in human form. Further, if the body is evil, it must be despised and contained by asceticism. Or, since the body is evil, desires can be indulged in with impunity even if the result is uncontrolled immorality.

It can be readily be seen how these ideas could have destroyed Christianity. In his epistle Paul meets them, shows their error, and affirms the truth.

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