This is a paper I wrote for my New Testament class on the Epistle to the Colossians. I have removed all footnotes so future students can learn as much as I did by doing their own researching. The biggest thing I learned was how to spell Colossians consistently correct.
The Bible is one of the oldest and most widely available book in the Western World and has shaped culture for the past two thousand years. Within the Bible there are two large divisions, the Old and New Testament. Within the Old Testament we see the Israel Story, the story of how God chose the Israelites as his vessel to bring salvation to the world. This salvation is in the form of Jesus Christ, and the New Testament chronicles his life. Within the first four books, called the Gospels, we see Jesus’ life and ministry. After the Gospels, we find the book of Acts, which tells the story of the first century church and commissioning of the Apostle Paul into the world on his missionary journey. Paul, during his journeys around the ancient near east, planted churches and kept in touch with them to make sure they were not being lead astray. He would send epistles, commonly called letters, to these churches to instruct them. These epistles, written by Paul and other apostles, make up the majority of the remainder of the New Testament. One of these epistles was written to the Colossians and John Calvin said that it “ distinguishes the true Christ from a fictitious one”, a problem that plagued the early church, but by understanding the historical, literary, and theological issues and circumstances of the epistle, we can have a more clear understanding of it’s contemporary relevance.
Knowing who authored an epistle is essential to having a more complete understanding of the letter. As with most books in the New Testament, there are debates over who wrote what books that form the canon of the New Testament. Although it was widely accepted that the Apostle Paul wrote the epistle for the first two thousand years of church history, doubts over the authenticity of Pauline authorship were raised by F.C. Baur over one hundred years ago, but these claims have since been rejected. The basis of these doubts were that the vocabulary and sentence structure were uncharacteristic of other Pauline epistles, and there seems to be a higher importance on eschatology. The style of the letter is loose, lacks infinitives and has a heavy use of participles, which is not Pauline in nature. The way that the argument is laid out is un-pauline and so is the doctrinal and teaching segment of the letter.
The amount of information available for attribution to Paul is far greater and of better quality. Although some of the words do not appear in any of the other writings that are known to be written by Paul without a shadow of doubt, the majority of these words fall within the description of the heresy. Another refutation of non Pauline authorship is the fact that this letter was written later. It is possible for Paul to change his theology into something more robust. The biggest refutation is that the early church ascribed the book of Colossians to the Apostle Paul. There is very little evidence for non Pauline authorship, and it is widely accepted that it was written by Paul.
There is little debate as to where Paul was when he wrote his letter to the church in Colossae. Most scholars agree that Paul’s time in prison provides the best point of reference to place a date and time to the authorship of the letter, and say that it was written during his time in prison which is described in Acts 28:30. The letter itself says that Paul is in prison, and he talks about a fellow prisoner, Aristarchus, who was with Paul his journey to Rome. This places the writing of the letter around 60-62AD.
The letter was written to the church in Colossae, an important city in the Roman province of Asia and was located about 100 miles from Ephesus. There is nothing left there now but some ruins. It was mostly populated by Jews, Greeks and Phrygians. Not much is known about the town as it has not been excavated, but the town was located on a major trade route east of Ephesus. Besides Romans, Colossae was the only church that Paul wrote to but did not visit, and the church was planted by Epaphras after hearing Paul preach in Ephesus.
The epistle is unique, not only having twenty eight words not found in any Pauline work but also having 34 words not found anywhere in the entire New Testament. The letter is also missing another common Pauline feature, particles. It is not written in the combative style like Galatians was, and does not use the phrase “my brothers” as often as in other epistles. This could be because Paul didn’t actually know the congregation personally. Like other Pauline letters, some paragraphs are used as transitional tools and there is no point to try and associate them to other parts of the letter. The letter can be broken into three sections, the first being the salutation, which contained, as most ancient letters did, the identification of the author (and coauthor in this case, Timothy), and tells who the letter is written to, and then contains a brief greeting (1:1-2). The second section of the letter is the main body of the letter, which contains the prayer report (1:3-12), Christology (1:13-23), Paul’s goal and where he gets his authority to teach (1:24-2:5), the refutation of the false teaching (2:6-23), and his exhortation to Christian living (3:1-4:6). The letters third section is a conclusion and contains his closing words and his salutation. The work can also be split into two larger categories, the first being doctrine and theology and the second being practical of Christian living and holiness.
More important to understanding an epistle than the author and reason the letter was written is the theological significance within the letter. In the letter, there are two main focuses. The first is on the heretical teaching that is threatening the church and the second is how to live a Christian life. Both themes are connected because if one followed the heretical teaching they would not be living the Christian life. Chapter one of the epistle speaks to Christ’s role in the cosmos, how he is the highest ruler, ruling over everything, and everything was made by him for him. This lays the foundation for Paul’s refutation of the false teaching, or what he calls “empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense”. It seems because no direct opponent is mentioned, that the opponents that spurred Paul to write the epistle are more than one group but are similar in nature. The main point that the epistle refutes from the opponents is asceticism, which is why Paul talks about food and drink, circumcision, and calls them mere human teachings. The epistle also introduced the “household code” which tells Christians how to live their lives in a holy way. The things listed included carnal sins such as sexual immorality, impurity, and evil desires, as well as negative oral traits such as slander and dirty language. There are also rules for the Christian household which include submission and what the relationship between a Christian husband, wife, and child should look like. We are not to forget that although we are new creation spiritually, that we still live in our worldly bodies and have worldly relationships. All of what is written in the epistle, especially the household code and moral laws to live a holy life, can be used today.
Living a Christ-like life is a task that is tremendous to bear on our own, which is why we were given the Holy Spirit to assist us in this task. The law, for the lack of a better term, which can be found within this epistle, set a standard of living for the early believers to live by. This code is still applicable to us today, as the things that are listed are common of our modern culture. Just as the Colossians were threatened by outside sources, the modern Christian is too. With the wide use and availability of secular media, it is easy to be drawn into the traps of human ways. The moral code that is given by Paul to the Colossians is one that Christians should strive to model their life after, since it is modeled after Christ himself. We should “put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within us”, since we have been raised from the death with Christ and given new life. The things we are told to avoid are outward sins in our lives that the world can see and include greediness, anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, dirty language, and lying. All these things hurt our witness to non believers as they make us look like the people who are in the world around us. The second list includes sins that cannot be seen by others and are more private, and hurt ourselves as well as the people around us. These include sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. If we avoid these things we will be more Christ-like, and in turn a better witness to our secular relationships. It is because of the early church’s inability to not be swayed by outside forces that allows us to have these epistles be written so Christians in the modern context have a standard on which to live by that is eternal and unchanging and in a society where relativism is flourishing. It is essential that we have a objective standard to live our lives by, and the Apostle Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, has give nbelievers that standard to live by in the epistle to the Colossians.
In conclusion, the Epistle to the Colossians is a wonderful piece of writing by the Apostle Paul to the church in Colossae that has Pauline attributes and is a great example of how his theology changed over time, becoming something that is full and more complete. By better understanding the historical background of authorship, when, to who and why it was written, we can more fully understand how it matters to the modern day Christian. When we look at the literary style, structure and language used within the epistle, we can place it at a time in history and correctly say who wrote it. When we understand what the people who received the letter were facing, we can understand why it was written and how we can apply it to our lives. When you asses the letter from all of those angles, it is clear that the epistle is extremely relevant to the modern reader and can help to shape them into a more Christ-like person, who is not a slave to all the temptations of the world. By following this code that is throughout the letter and especially in chapter three, we can see how the Epistle to the Colossians is a shining example of how the bible is a timeless work of literature that is divinely inspired and relevant for eternity.
Ironside, Henry Allen, Lectures on the Epistle to the Colossians. New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers Inc, 1929.
Martin, Ralph, Colossians and Philemon. London: Oliphants, 1974.
MacDonald, Margaret Y., Colossians and Ephesians. Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2000.
Pao, David W., Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Colossians & Philemon. Michigan: Zondervan, 2012.
Turner, George A. “Colossians” in The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, ed. Charles W. Carter. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965.
Travis, Stephen and Marshall, Howard, Exploring the New Testament: A Guide to the Letters and Revelation. Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2011.