Colossians - Introduction
THE EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS
The Churches of the Lycus
Valley. The Lycus River rises in the mountains of Southern Phrygia and flows west and northwest for more than
twenty miles before joining the Maeander. In ancient times Colossae was situated on the left bank of the Lycus at the
northern roots of towering Mount Cadmos. Laodicea, a larger and a wealthier city, lay about ten miles further down the
valley. The great trade route from the Euphrates to Ephesus passed through both towns. Several miles directly
north of Laodicea was Hierapolis, a famed shrine and much-frequented health resort.
The Christian community at Colossae was not founded
by St. Paul. He had been very close to the Lycus Valley when on his third missionary journey he traveled from Antioch
through Galatia and Phrygia to Ephesus (Acts 18, 23; 19, 1); but several passages of his letter to the Colossians
(1, 4.9; 2, 1) find their most natural explanation in the supposition that St. Paul had never preached there.
During his long stay at Ephesus (55-57 A.D.), however, he must have converted many visitors from other Asian cities, who in
their turn preached the gospel in their native towns (Acts 19, 10.26; 1 Cor. 16, 19). Among
them were Philemon and Epaphras, both natives of Colossae, perhaps too, Nymphas of Laodicea (Col. 4, 12.15; Philem.
19). Under St. Paul's direction (1, 7) Epaphras spread the good news of the gospel in the three cities of the
Lycus Valley (4, 13).
Occasion of the Epistle. At first the converts of Epaphras, especially those in
Colossae, made great progress in their new life of grace and faith (1, 4-8; 2, 5; Philem. 5-7). But
before many years had passed, a tendency to superstition inspired by the unusual natural phenomena observable in the valley
(hot springs, underground rivers, and earthquakes), and an inclination to syncretism based on the mixed character of
the population, gave rise to errors in belief and practice with which Epaphras felt he could no longer cope unaided.
He went to Rome where St. Paul had for two years (61-63 A.D.) been awaiting trial before Caesar. From the report of
Epaphras the Apostle saw that a new danger, more subtle than the heresy he had condemned in his letter to the Galatians, now
threatened the Asian Christians. To warn them of their peril and to furnish them with weapons for defense, he wrote
the Colossians a letter embodying an energetic protest against the heretical opinions and a more complete instruction on Christian
doctrine and practice than they had as yet received.
Place and Time of Composition. A comparison of several passages in
the four letters of the first captivity of St. Paul in Rome makes it likely that they followed each other in this order: Colossians,
Philemon, Ephesus, and Philippians, and that they were written in the spring of 63 A.D. Though the Apostle knew the
outcome of his appeal to Caesar's tribunal (Acts 25, 11 f) might yet be fatal, he nevertheless hoped to be liberated
and he planned to send Timothy on to Philippi before him (Phil. 2, 19-24). Philippians, then, can be placed
at the very end of St. Paul's imprisonment. When the Apostle wrote to Philemon, his hope of a release was only a little
less strong (Philem. 22). Since Tychicus, accompanied by Onesimus who had with him the letter of recommendation to his
master Philemon, was the bearer of both Colossians (Col. 4, 7-9) and Ephesians (Eph. 6, 21-22), these three
letters will have been written a few months before Philippians; and Colossians before Ephesians, which is more general in
its theme and in detail more developed.
The Colossian Errors. To understand fully St. Paul's Epistle to the
Colossians it is important that one have a clear idea of the nature of the errors which he sought to refute. While the
Apostle's first readers knew quite well the persons and the teachings he condemned, for us many of his expressions referring
to them lack clearness. However, by grouping his direct and indirect references to the sources, the essence, and the
objective of the heresy, we can form a picture of it definite enough to serve as a foil for the revealed truths which St.
Paul opposed to the errors.
The false teachings were drawn not from the gospel, the true message of salvation through Christ preached
by divinely commissioned apostles, but from human sources. The contribution of the pagan environment is marked by terms
that were current in the mystery-cults (2, 8 f), such as "elements" and "fullness"; perhaps, too, by the words of
philosophy, mystery, knowledge, life, member, perfect. What had been borrowed from the Old Testament was wrongly interpreted
and applied (2, 16-23). Based ultimately, then, on the fallible mind of man, the "philosophy" was a system
void of real content, but capable of leading weak souls astray (2, 8.18). Yet the false teachers took a superior
attitude toward their fellow-Christians (2, 4.19.23). Censorious of the morals of others, they followed practices
of devotion and asceticism calculated to give the impression of a more perfect religion.
The central point in the heretical teaching
seems to have been the worship of angels (2, 18). It was thought that they, the Elements of the World, spirits
animating the natural forces and governing the stars and planets, controlled human destiny. In some measure the evil
in the world was due to their influence. They were a series of spiritual beings, more or less divine, interposed
between God and man. Christ, then, was not the only mediator; these angelic powers, too, must be appeased by man in
his striving for reconciliation and union with God.
To this purpose the Colossian heresiarchs proposed a religious system in which ideas borrowed
from the mystery-cults were joined to observances taken from Judaism. The body, a conglomerate of matter controlled
by the elemental spirits, must be purified by ascetical practices; to win the favor of the angels as "Lords of Time," enthroned
in the heavenly bodies, feasts were to be kept each week and month and year (2, 16-23). By meticulous adherence
to such rules might one hope to be freed from evil.
St. Paul's effort to offset the danger is a model of constructive criticism. He attacks
the false teaching rather than the heretics, who remain unnamed. His method is positive. The true doctrine must
be derived from authentic sources: men whom God has sent, either directly, as the Apostle himself (1, 26); or indirectly,
as Epaphras, his disciple (1, 7; 4, 12 f). In this original gospel message is clearly contained the
doctrine of Christ's divinity and His pre-eminence over all creatures, even the angels (1, 15-20). His redeeming
death is all-sufficient (1, 14.22); its effects have, indeed, to be applied to individuals (1, 24), but
cannot be supplemented or supplanted by the action of beings subordinate to Christ (2, 9 f).
Away, then, with the system of
belief and practice (2, 8-23) that would prolong the subjection of man to the powers of evil vanquished in the death
of our Savior! Lift up your hearts (3, 1-4)! Otherworldliness, not serving the Elements of the World,
must be the mark of Christian asceticism. Virtues, good habits that bring peace and joy to the soul, must take the place
of pagan sins (3, 5-17). Christians, in fact, are other Christs (3, 3 f).
Introduction 1, 1-14
I. The Pre-eminence of Christ
1, 15 -- 2, 3
II. Warnings Against False Teachers 2, 4 -- 3, 4
III. The Ideal Christian Life in the World
3, 5 -- 4, 6
Conclusion 4, 7-18
EPISTLE OF ST. PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS
During Paul's stay at Ephesus from about 53 to
56 A.D., the message of the Gospel was carried inland by his zealous converts. Among these was Epaphras, who evangelized
the towns of Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis, situated in the valley of the Lycus River little more than a hundred miles
east of Ephesus. The Apostle took a personal interest in the work of his disciple. A few years later, while he
was being detained at Rome for trial before Caesar, he had news of the Colossians through Epaphras. Though the report
was, on the whole, favorable, he saw dangerous tendencies in the young Christian community. Self-appointed teachers
claimed for angels a very high place of honor, and boasted of a deeper knowledge of Christianity, insisting on Judaic observances
and a false asceticism. Concerned lest his work be destroyed, Epaphras had come to Rome to seek help from Paul.
Paul met the danger by sending
(63 A.D.) a letter to Colossae, borne by Tychicus. To counter the errors he set forth in clear terms the true doctrine
concerning Christ, our Redeemer, head of the mystical body, the Church, and drew up rules for an ideal Christian life.
Between these positive sections, the Apostle inserted a vigorous condemnation of the false teachings. Because of the
emphatic statement of Christ's divinity that they contain, the first two chapters of the letter are of great doctrinal importance.
The Epistle to the Colossians
bears a remarkable resemblance to the Epistle to the Ephesians. Most of the words and phrases of this shorter letter
are met with in the other also. Written at the same time, both were addressed to communities of Jewish and pagan converts,
struggling in like circumstances to maintain the purity of their faith. The two Epistles should be read and studied