III. The Occasion of the Letter
Though the first-century town was small and relatively insignificant, the “brothers in Christ at Colosse” (1:2) and the issues at stake were vitally important to Paul. His co-worker Epaphras had brought report of God's gracious work at Colosse (vv. 6-8); it is also evident that Epaphras had shared with the apostle his concerns about the Colossian church (2:1-5; 4:12-13).
A strange teaching was being promulgated at Colosse. No exposition of this heresy is extant; its features must be inferred from what Paul says in argument against it (see ch. 2). A syncretistic form of human philosophy, the heresy seemed to promise its adherents protection from evil powers through ascetic legalism. The apostle's antidote to these claims is a strong doctrine of Christ's sovereignty.
At the time of writing, Paul is in prison (4:18). The location of his imprisonment, however, is uncertain. “But,” as F. F. Bruce argues, “in the case of Colossians and Ephesians (with which Philemon necessarily goes) the arguments for a Roman origin are stronger [than for Philippians]” (p. 87). References in the three prison epistles suggest that all were dispatched at the same time (see Col 4:7-9; Phm 10; Eph 6:21-22). Phm 22 seems to indicate that the apostle's appeal to Caesar was yet forthcoming and he expected to be released shortly. Based on such data, the traditional view dates the writing of this epistle to Paul's first Roman imprisonment, c. a.d. 62. The letter was to be delivered by Tychicus, accompanied by Philemon's slave, Onesimus (4:7-9).