The author of this epistle is the apostle Paul as stated in Colossians 1:1. The Epistle to the Colossians is one of the Prison Epistles which are so called because they were written by Paul while he was in prison in Rome. The Prison Epistles include Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and the very personal Epistle to Philemon.
The year was about a.d. 62. Four messengers left Rome unobserved, but they each carried a very valuable document. Tychicus was carrying the Epistle to the Ephesians over to Ephesus where he was the pastor or the leader of that church. Epaphroditus was carrying the Epistle to the Philippians as he was the pastor in Philippi. Epaphras was carrying the Epistle to the Colossians; apparently he was the leader of the church in Colosse. Onesimus was carrying the Epistle to Philemon. Philemon was his master, and Onesimus, who had run away, was returning to him.
These four are companion epistles and together have been called the anatomy of Christianity, or the anatomy of the church. We can see that the subjects of these epistles cover all aspects of the Christian faith:
Ephesians is about the body of believers called the church, of which Christ is the head.
Colossians directs our attention to the head of the body who is Christ. The body itself is secondary. Christ is the theme. He is the center of the circle around which all Christian living revolves. Colossians emphasizes the pleroma; Christ is the fullness of God.
Philippians shows the church walking here on earth. Christian living is the theme; it is the periphery of the circle of which Christ is the center. Philippians emphasizes the kenosis, Christ becoming a servant.
Philemon gives us Christianity in action. We would say it is where the rubber meets the road, or in that day it was where the sandals touched the Roman road. It demonstrates Christianity worked out in a pagan society.
We can see why these four documents have been called the anatomy of the church—they belong together to make a whole.
I don’t think any armored car ever carried four more valuable documents. Do you realize that if today you possessed those four original documents as they came from the hand of Paul, you could probably get any price you wanted for them—you would have the wealth of a king! Well, we measure it in terms other than the dollar sign; their spiritual value cannot be estimated in human terms at all.
I have never been to Colosse although I have been in sight of it—I have seen it from a distance. The ruins of it stand there in the gates of Phrygia. It is over in the same area where Laodicea and Hierapolis are. There are some ruins of the city; there are no ruins of any church. The church at Colosse met in the home of Philemon. I doubt that there ever was a church building there.
A great civilization and a great population were in that area. It was more or less a door to the Orient, to the East; it was called the gates of Phrygia. Here the East and the West met. Here is where the Roman Empire attempted to tame the East and to bring it under Roman subjugation.
Colosse was a great fortress city as were Laodicea, Philadelphia, Sardis, Thyatira, and Pergamum. All of these had been great cities of defense against invasion from the East. But by the time of Paul the apostle the danger had been relieved because the Roman Empire was pretty much in charge of the world by then. As a result, the people had lapsed into paganism and gross immorality at the time of Paul. And Colosse was typical of the great cities of that day.
As far as the record is concerned, Paul never visited the city of Colosse. After I visited the Bible lands I could understand many things in Scripture that I had not understood before. Why didn’t Paul visit Colosse? It seems that he did not come in through the gates of Phrygia, but instead he came into the north of Colosse over at Sardis. Apparently he took that Roman road to Ephesus and by–passed Colosse.
Even though Paul was never in the city of Colosse, he was the founder of the church there. Epaphras was the leader of the church, and he may have been the direct founder, but Paul founded the church at Colosse. He was the founder in very much the same way as he was the founder of the church at Rome: he touched multitudes of people in the Roman Empire who later gravitated to Rome and formed the church there. Paul may have visited Laodicea (although I doubt that very seriously), and believers may have come from there to Colosse. But converts from Paul’s ministry in Ephesus very definitely could have come to Colosse to form the nucleus of that church. Colosse is located just seventy–five to one hundred miles east of Ephesus.
Paul spent three years of ministry in Ephesus, two of them teaching in the school of Tyrannus. There was a tremendous civilization in that area—the culture of the Roman Empire was centered there. It was no longer centered in Greece, which had pretty much deteriorated along with her philosophy and culture. But the Greek culture was virile in Asia Minor, the area known as Turkey today. It was in this area that Paul did his greatest work along with his co–workers. There were with him John Mark, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and apparently some of the other apostles. We know that the apostle John became the pastor at Ephesus later on.
Asia Minor was a great cultural center, but it was also a center for heathenism, paganism, and the mystery religions. There was already abroad that which is known as Gnosticism, the first heresy of the church. There were many forms of Gnosticism, and in Colosse there were the Essenes. There are three points of identification for this group:
- They had an exclusive spirit. They were the aristocrats in wisdom. They felt that they were the people—they had knowledge in a jug and held the stopper in their hands. They felt they had the monopoly of it all. As a result, they considered themselves super–duper in knowledge and thought they knew more than any of the apostles. Paul will issue them a warning in the first chapter: “Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Col. 1:28). Perfection is not to be found in any cult or any heresy, but in Christ Jesus. All wisdom is found in Him.
- They held speculative tenets on creation. They taught that God did not create the universe directly, but created a creature who in turn created another creature, until one finally created the physical universe. Christ was considered a creature in this long series of creations. This was known in pantheistic Greek philosophy as the demiurge. Paul refutes this in Colossians 1:15–19 and 2:18.
- Another identifying mark of this group was their ethical practice of asceticism and unrestrained licentiousness. They got the asceticism from the influence of Greek Stoicism and the unrestrained licentiousness from the influence of Greek Epicureanism. Paul refutes this in Colossians 2:16, 23 and 3:5–9.
Colossians is the chart and compass which enables the believer to sail between the ever present Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand there is always the danger of Christianity freezing into a form, into a ritual. It has done that in many areas and in many churches so that Christianity involves nothing more than going through a routine. On the other hand is the danger that Christianity will evaporate into a philosophy. I had an example of that when a man who was liberal in his theology asked me, “What theory of inspiration do you hold?” I answered him, “I don’t hold a theory of inspiration. I believe that the Word of God is the revelation of God as it says it is. That is not a theory.” We find people talking about theories of inspiration and theories of atonement—that is the evaporation of Christianity into a philosophy.
So there are two dangers. One is to freeze into form and become nothing but a ritualistic church; the other is to evaporate into steam and be lost in liberalism and false philosophy. You will remember that the Lord Jesus said that He was the Water of Life. He didn’t say, “I am the ice of life”; neither did he say, “I am the steam of life.” He is the Water of Life—water at the temperature of life, neither freezing nor boiling.
The Water of Life is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Christ is to live in you. He is to walk down the street where you live. Christianity is Christ down where we live, Christ in the nitty–gritty of life, down where the rubber meets the road.
There has always been the danger of adding something to or subtracting something from Christ—the oldest heresy is also the newest heresy, by the way. Christianity is not a mathematical problem of adding or subtracting: Christianity is Christ. This is what Paul teaches in this epistle: “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9)—in Him dwelleth all the pleroma. All you need is to be found in Christ Jesus.
Here is a quotation from William Sanday: “In the Ephesian Epistle the church is the primary object, and the thought passes upward to Christ as the head of the church. In the Colossian Epistle Christ is the primary object, and the thought passes downward to the church as the body of Christ.”
The dominating thought in this epistle is: Christ is all. He is all I need; He is everything. Charles Wesley put it like this in his lovely hymn: “Thou, O Christ, art all I want; more than all in Thee I find.”
Charles Spurgeon said, “Look on thine own nothingness; be humble, but look at Jesus, thy great representative, and be glad. It will save thee many pangs if thou will learn to think of thyself as being in Him”—accepted in the Beloved, finding Him our all in all.
I received a letter from a dear lady here in Pasadena. She is eighty years old and doesn’t expect to live much longer, but she is resting in Christ’s loving forgiveness. My friend, you cannot find a better place to rest.
If you are resting in Him, you will find that you don’t need to go through a ritual. You won’t need to do a lot of gyrations and genuflections. You won’t be discussing the theories of inspiration. You either believe that the Bible is the Word of God, or you don’t believe it is the Word of God.
Let us stop this so–called intellectual approach that we find in our churches today. It’s no good. When I started out as a pastor, I tried to be intellectual. An elder in the church in which I served came to me and talked to me about it, and he said, “We would rather have a genuine Vernon McGee than an imitation of anybody else.” You see, I was trying to imitate intellectual men whom I admired. We don’t need to do that kind of thing—we need to be ourselves. We need to get down off our high horses. Remember that the Lord Jesus is feeding sheep, not giraffes.
The practical section of this epistle shows us Christ, the fullness of God, poured out in the lives of the believers. The alabaster box of ointment needs to be broken today. The world not only needs to see something, but it needs to smell something. The pollution of this world is giving a very bad odor in these days. We need something of the fragrance and loveliness of Jesus Christ, and only the church is permitted to break that alabaster box of ointment and let out the fragrance.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 48: Philippians & Colossians. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)