Did you know that most of the books that comprise the New Testament are actually letters? These letters (also known as “epistles”) contain both general Christian teaching and specific instructions for the congregation to which they were addressed. As part of our Letters to the Church series, we’re taking a brief look at each epistle in the New Testament. Last week we looked at Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. This week, we look at what Paul had to say to the Christian community in Colosse.
In the decades following Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection, Christianity wasn’t the only religion competing for people’s hearts and minds. Pagan cults and philosophies were firmly entrenched throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.
It’s understandable that early Christians—many of whom had followed such religions and philosophies before giving their lives to Christ—faced a continual struggle to keep their newfound faith separate from the spiritual currents of the world around them. The Christian community in the city of Colosse was caught up in that struggle… and they needed help.
Paul’s Letter to the Colossians
Start reading it here: Colossians 1
When and where was it written? It’s widely believed that Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written in 62 A.D., during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (around the same time he wrote his epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians).
To whom was it written? The house church in Colosse. Colosse had once been a city of considerable significance, but its importance was on the wane when Paul wrote his letter. The inhabitants of the area were mostly Gentiles (non-Jews), though there was a considerable colony of Jews among them as well.
Paul had never visited Colosse, but he had spent a considerable amount of time in Ephesus, located about one hundred miles to the east—so it was very likely that Paul and Epaphras (founder of the Colossian church) had been in contact with one another.
Why was it written? When Epaphras arrived in Rome, he brought with him disturbing news from the Christian community in Colosse: non-Christian teachings were circulating within the Colossian church. The problem was syncretism: Jewish and Gentile beliefs and practices were being combined, creating a sort of hybrid religion that no longer resembled true Christianity.
More specifically, the heresy taking root in Colosse was a form of gnosticism, which taught (among other things) that humans could transcend evil and the corruptions of the world through asceticism and their own strength of will. Gnostics believed that they could essentially ignore the world and follow their own desires and impulses. Paul wrote to the Colossian church to warn them away from error and reiterate the importance of the Christian ethic.
What does it say? This letter challenges the believers in Colosse to look solely to the divinity of Jesus Christ, through whom we are all saved. In it, Paul refutes the gnostic heresy spreading throughout the Colossian church and presents Jesus as God, creator of the universe. He emphasizes the importance of the cross: Jesus is Savior, and only by his blood we are saved.
- Colossians 1:15-18: Paul asserts the supremacy and divinity of Jesus Christ as the head of the church.
- Colossians 2:8-9: Paul warns to people of Colosse not to allow themselves to be led astray by false teachings.
- Colossians 3:15-17: In this beautiful passage, Paul calls the Christians in Colosse to accept Christ and receive his peace.
What can we learn from Colossians? Although you might not feel tempted by gnosticism or the specific heresies described here, this letter is remarkably relevant to us today. Its central premise is that humans cannot achieve salvation through their own works, ideas, or accomplishments; we can’t “improve” Christianity by adding to it ideas or philosophies from other sources, no matter how well-intentioned they are. Paul’s letter to the Colossians reminds us that there is absolute truth in Christianity. There’s no need to look elsewhere for salvation.
Consider these questions as you read Colossians today:
- How do you keep an eye out for heretical teachings?
- Have you ever tried, perhaps unwittingly, to “complicate” the message of salvation? How so—and what helped you recognize your efforts for what they were?
- Why do you think it was so easy for churches to fall prey to false teachings in Paul’s day? Do you think it’s still a problem in today’s church?
- Imagine that this letter was written to you. How would you respond?