This epistle of the apostle Paul, "an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother" (Colossians 1:1) is addressed to a congregation at Colossae in the Lycus Valley in Asia Minor, east of Ephesus, written before Paul had ever visited them (Colossians 1:4; 2:1). Apparently Epaphras of Colossae had established the Christian community there (Colossians 1:7; 4:12). Problems had arisen from teachers who emphasized ideas about Christ's relation to the cosmos (universe), stressing the beings of angels, "principalities and powers", which were associated with astral powers and cultic practices (mystery religions), and imposed regulations about food and drink and ascetical practices of self-denial (Colossians 2:16, 18). Paul insists that these practices detract from the Person and work of Christ for salvation, as set forth by him in a magnificent hymnic passage (Colossians 1:15-20) and reiterated throughout his letter. Such distracting ideas are only "shadows"; Christ is "reality" (Colossians 2:17).
Epaphras had sought out Paul for help in dealing with the problems posed by new teachers at Colossae. Paul was at the time imprisoned at a place not specified (Colossians 4:10, 18). Without entering into philosophical debate over the existence of angelic powers or their function, Paul simply affirms that Christ possesses and embodies in himself the sum total of redemptive power (Colossians 1:19) and that the spiritual renewal of the human person occurs through contact with Christ Himself in baptism, He who died and rose again from the dead (Colossians 2:9-14). Such concerns about placating spirits (worship of them) and imaginations about defilements from food and drink are unnecessary for the Christian. True Christian asceticism consists in conquering personal sins (Colossians 3:5-10) and the practice of loving the neighbor in full accordance with the standard set by the word of Christ (3:12-16).
Paul expresses his prayerful concern for them (Colossians 1:9-14) and commends the community as a whole, which seems to indicate that while they have been under the persuasive pressure to adopt the false doctrines put forth by the new teachers they have not yet succumbed to it. His own dedication to the doctrine of Christ by his preaching has also cost him: persecution, suffering, and imprisonment. Yet he regards these as reflecting the sufferings of Christ as required ascetical discipline for the sake of the Gospel (1:24, 29; 2:1). Love, obedience and service are to be rendered "in the Lord" (3:18–4:1). His instructions to the Christian family and to slaves and masters require of them a new spirit of reflective reconsideration and action in Christ "their life" (3:4).
The letter to the Colossians follows the pattern of a Pauline epistle. It is distinguished by poetic lines (Colossians 1:15-20) concerning who Christ is and what He means in creation and in redemption of spirits and souls of men. This hymn is comparable to similar passages in Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Timothy 3:16 and John 1:1-18. Its liturgical form and content was apparently familiar to Paul, to the congregation, and to the false teachers. However, in Colossians 1:21–2:7 Paul interprets the relation between the body of Christ, as being most emphatically the church (1:18), and the world cosmos, to be a relationship not simply of Christ's pre-incarnate existence and rule but one of missionary advance into the world by the spreading of the word (1:25, 28). Paul as Christ's minister in this one labor of the missionary body of Christ plays a prime part in bringing Christ and the Gospel as a confidently expectant hope to the Gentiles (1:23, 25, 27). The word is to be proclaimed to "every creature under heaven" (not just the elect), so that everyone receives Christ, is established in faith, and walks in Christ (1:28; 2:6, 7).
Paul's several imprisonments leave uncertain the specific place and date of this letter composed in prison. The same difficulty exists with Ephesians and Philippians and Philemon. Traditionally he was under house arrest at Rome, in which he was allowed a certain restricted freedom in preaching to visitors (see Acts 23:16-28), but a second Roman imprisonment has been proposed as the setting of its composition. Others suggest a still earlier imprisonment at Caesarea (see Acts 23:12–27:1) or in Ephesus (see Acts 19). Still other scholars regard the letter as the work of some faithful pupil or follower of Paul, writing in his name. Whatever is the truth, the contents of this letter to the Colossians often closely parallel the thoughts in Ephesians.
The letter to the Ephesians can be divided into five sections:
- Address (1:1-14)
- The Preeminence of Christ (1:15–2:3)
- Warnings against False Teachers (2:4-23)
- The Ideal Christian Life in the World (3:1–4:6)
- Conclusion (4:7-18)
Chapter 1 He gives thanks for the grace bestowed upon the Colossians; and prays for them. Christ is the head of the church, and the peacemaker through his blood. Paul is his minister.
Chapter 2 He warns them against the impostures of the philosophers and the Jewish teachers, that could withdraw them from Christ.
Chapter 3 He exhorts them to put off the old man, and to put on the new. The duties of wives and husbands, children and servants.
Chapter 4 He recommends constant prayer, and wisdom. Various salutations.
- An indirect reference to Plato's analogy of the cave in which men are born imprisoned and unable to see the outside world, but can only guess at its nature by the shadows thrown onto the wall opposite them from the light and darkness of the reality of the things passing by the opening outside the cave.
- The same warning against apostasy is the primary message in the Letter to the Hebrews.