The question of who wrote the letter is not as important as it used to be. Once we recognise Paul’s indirect relationship with the church addressed, (through Epaphras, trained by Paul), and the extent to which this letter is filled with materials which were common traditions cultivated in the Pauline churches, it has to be understood as representative of the Pauline school, whoever its author was.
Colossae was located on the Lycus River in Phrygia, on the main highway between Ephesus and Tarsus. Its name was derived from the dark red dye for wool (colossinus), a clue to its flourishing textile and wool industry.
Its former importance as a centre of trade had declined by the first century because of competition from nearby Laodicea and Hierapolis. It was now a minor market town that Paul never visited. It has never been excavated and may well have been destroyed by a major earthquake in 60-61, in the days of Nero.
Exploring the positives
Rather than covering the question of authorship, I believe it is far better to come to a deeper appreciation and understanding of the timeless message and relevance of this letter. The Christian community (see 4:7-17) seems to suggest a small, closely-knit group, all known to each other by name, yet includes a good mixture of age, status and racial background.
It was open to other currents of religious thought, indicating many gentiles (Col 1:21, 27; 2:13). They are called ‘alienated and hostile in mind, hence strangers to the covenant of promise’, in need of ‘having the mystery of Christ’ made known to them.
The religious atmosphere was syncretistic, many cults were practised and merged with existing religious ceremonies.
The cult of Cybele, the great mother-goddess of Asia, was a nature rite tied to fertility customs and leading to excessive joy and ecstasy; asceticism was also part of this religion. Severity of the body (2:23) and circumcision (2:11) referred to initiation rites and mutilation practices familiar to this cult.
The worship of Isis was also widespread at this time as was that of Apollo.
Thrown into this mix may have been a type of Judaism and Mithraism that saw earth, air, fire and water as gods.
For whom and why?
Given so many ‘false teachers’ it is little wonder that the author is clearly concerned with the way the Christian faith is interpreted in this community.
Firstly there is warning against a deceiving and seductive philosophy (2:8), opposing those who would dilute the gospel message in the name of a particular kind of wisdom based on human tradition and cosmic powers.
Such wisdom is opposed by the wisdom of God and may have been influenced by early Gnosticism and astrology, prevalent in the Colossian world. I wonder how many today would still guide their lives according to the stars? All this would imply people needed something more to rid themselves of their subjection to elemental spirits. False teachers may well have been teaching them that Jesus Christ was not enough to do this.
Secondly there is a warning against a false kind of asceticism (2:21). Imposing rigid rules on food and drink was a heresy that limited Christian freedom by insisting on all kinds of legalistic ordinances, considering certain kinds of food and drink as evil or morally harmful. There is a Jewish flavour to the restrictions and the ‘festivals, new moons and Sabbath, as well as the mention of circumcision (2:11-13).
Thirdly there is warning against worship of angels (2:18).
Clearly the community is suffering from pressure to combine their worship of Christ with a reverential bowing down to some cosmic or heavenly powers, whether angelic or demonic intermediaries between human beings and God. All this is rejected by insisting that Christians have died with Christ to elemental spirits (2:20) and are now freed from their regulations.
The gravity of the error at Colossae lay in confusing people in their faith by attacking the total adequacy and unique supremacy of Christ, thus drawing them away from the true source of salvation.
Key text 1:15-20
This exultant hymn carries us to the very heights of Christology. It declares the author’s desire to proclaim the supremacy of Christ to a people whose faith is no longer centred on the person of Jesus.
This Christ hymn centres on Christ’s person and work: what he is in himself, what he is to creation, what he is to the church, and what he is to all things.
‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15), a reminder of the story of creation, with Christ as agent and goal of all creation.
‘The whole universe continues to exist only through him. Like a huge invisible net, the being of Christ encompasses all other things and keeps them in place.
He is the pattern for everything else; from the greatest to the smallest heavenly powers, to the smallest and lowliest earthly creature, all possess a part of Christ’s reality’ (Stockhausen p.38, MBS 13). Indeed, the universe is essentially Christological.
It is folly and contrary to God’s will to offer worship to anything other than Christ and through him to God. Any other spiritual powers (angels) are only images or partial reflections, but only in Christ is the fullness of God present and visible.
That body is also found through the church, a Christological microcosm; salvation lives and grows within the church as long as it remains in contact with Christ as ‘head’ in authority over the church. It is to this powerful Christ that members of the church are connected.
The most important idea in the letter is Christ who was, is, and always will be the absolute foundation of our reality. The world that we experience and in which we live out our lives, is in Christ who creates it and holds it in existence.
As redeemed people and as church the power of God is active in us and enabling us to continue to the work of bringing that power, hope, and glory to all creation.