Introduction to Colossians

Historical background

The book of Colossians has a remarkable historical background. Paul wrote this letter while he was under house arrest in Rome. He had made one last effort to communicate the Good News to his Jewish compatriots in Jerusalem. It failed, instead producing a riot from which the Romans rescued him and took him into custody. Because of imminent threats to his life his Roman guards whisked him away to Caesarea for safe keeping. There, although he had several hearings, his accusers never came to face him in court. They were probably content to have him safely out of Judea. After languishing in prison for about two years, he final exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to Caesar. Following a harrowing trip to Rome, he awaited trial for several years.

Able to receive visitors, he used this opportunity to expound the Good News that he had already been preaching in many other places (Acts 28:30-31). He also spent time reflecting on his ministry and writing at least the four letters during that period which have been preserved to this day: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. The names of the first three came from the cities to whose followers of Jesus Paul wrote the letters. Many scholars think that Paul intended Ephesians to circulate among the various churches in the region. Colossians resembles Ephesians in its themes. Paul wrote Philemon as a personal note to a friend in Colosse and undoubtedly sent it along with the letter to the church there.

Paul had never visited Colosse (1:7-9). Epaphras, one of Paul’s converts during an earlier stay in nearby Ephesus, had established the Colossian church. Paul took advantage of this time to write because a man named Tychicus, present with him at the time, was going to travel to Ephesus, Colosse, and perhaps some other nearby cities. Paul would send the letter with him (Colossians 4:7-8).

Paul also wanted to address a false teaching which was beginning to infiltrate some of the churches. Though most scholars believe that the philosophy of Gnosticism arose and flourished the second century, the content of Colossians suggests that a precursor already existed in Paul’s day and greatly concerned him. It became one of the main issues Paul addressed in the letter. We will have more to say about this philosophy and its relevance to today when we come to it the middle of chapter 1 and more fully in chapter 2.

Colossians 1:1,2


1:1 From Paul, 1  an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our `words loosely in our day, but the early Christians used it in a much more literal way. It signified a bond that was equivalent to being biological brothers and sisters. Jesus intended that the ties between his followers would be nothing less than that. Historical anecdotes from that period show that the early church lived that way. Nowadays we can’t imagine that. Most of us would consider it an affront to our relatives. That is largely because we have mostly lost the depth of Jesus’ and Paul’s intentions to establish us as a community under the lordship of Jesus. We view the Church more like an institution whose meetings we attend than as a true family of which we are members. This doesn’t mean we should forsake family relationships and obligations. But it means that we have to give high priority to acting as true brothers and sisters of our fellow followers of Jesus. There is a particular urgency about this nowadays as our culture is becoming increasingly antagonistic toward Christian values. Both we and our children will increasingly need the support of like-minded brothers and sisters.

In his typical fashion, he wishes them grace and peace. Grace was originally a covenant word, in Hebrew, hensh. It referred to the gracious gesture of a conquering king who extended covenant to a cowering city-state rather than slaughter its inhabitants. To be in covenant with God is to have such grace extended in spite of the punishment we deserve. The Hebrews understood shalom (peace) to mean multidimensional well-being—peace not only with God, but also with ourselves, each other, and the world. Many of us focus on peace with God alone while our other relationships may remain broken.

Paul packed a lot into this brief salutation. It was not simply a throw-away flourish.

Questions for Personal Application:

  1. How do I see the purpose of my life? Am I in fact living that out?
  2. Do I see myself as set apart from the world in order to live in as part of God’s covenant people? What would that mean on a practical level?
  3. Am I cultivating relationships with other believers that have the strength and depth of blood relationships?
  4. What does it mean for me to receive God’s grace and peace today?