Introduction to Colossians
Passage: Colossians 1:1-2
This morning, we are going to begin a study through Colossians. Colossians has a special place in my heart because of how the Lord has used it to shape me.
For example, my view of God exploded during college, and one of the passages that stands out in that growth is Colossians 1:15–23, which declares the preeminence of Christ over all things. God used this passage to show me a view of Jesus I had never appreciated.
I also have very distinct memories of a chapel message in college on Colossians 2:13–15. The preacher used this text to paint a powerful picture of what Jesus did on the cross. God used that message to help me see the gospel as more than a ticket out of hell and as a wonderful reality that should dominate all of life. God also used that message and others like it to develop a burning desire in my heart to study the Word and to preach it expositionally.
I have many other similar memories; therefore, I am really looking forward to preaching through this book, and I’m eager to see how God is going to use Colossians to grow us as a church.
I hope you will study Colossians on your own. There are only 95 verses in Colossians, so onsider reading the book once a day for at least 2 weeks. I timed myself reading it out loud this week, and I read the whole book at a very comfortable pace in less than 13 minutes. You can do that! At the very least, come each week hungry to hear from God and to become like him.
This morning, I want to lay an important foundation for our study by using Colossians 1:1–2 to introduce the book. In particular, I want to tell the story of why Colossians was written, and I want to give you an overview of its message. There was an insert in the bulletin today that summarizes much of what we will cover. I’d encourage you to stick it in your Bible as a reference for our study because the material we will study today is going to be very helpful for understanding the smaller details of the text (read).
Let’s begin in v. 1 by talking about…
The Author: Paul (v. 1)
Verse 1 claims that Paul is the author of Colossians. And 4:18 closes the book by again stating that Paul is the author.
And Paul’s authorship matters because as v. 1 states…
Paul was God’s authoritative messenger to the church.
Paul describes himself as an “apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God.” In other words, Jesus himself called Paul to be an apostle and gave him the task of establishing the Gentile church. And by citing his apostleship, Paul is saying that this book is not just good advice; it is God’s authoritative Word. Therefore, Colossians stands over us as God’s Word to us.
Of course, liberal scholars who reject the inspiration of Scripture will often deny Paul’s authorship, as they do with just about every Pauline epistle. But they do so despite the fact that the early church fathers unanimously affirmed Paul’s authorship. Donald Guthrie states, “There is no shred of evidence that the Pauline authorship of the whole or any part of this epistle was ever disputed until the nineteenth century.”
I won’t bore you with the arguments for why liberals reject Paul’s authorship, but I will say that their arguments are very weak. It’s evident that the reason they deny Paul’s authorship is not because they somehow have a better sense of the 1st century world than church fathers who lived in it; rather they deny Paul’s authorship because they don’t want this book to be from God, and they don’t want to obey it.
We have no reason to be intimidated by their claims; rather, we can study this book with confidence knowing that God inspired Paul to write Colossians, and it has been preserved as authoritative Scripture.
Notice as well that…
Timothy was with Paul when he wrote.
It’s possible that we might read v. 1 as saying that Timothy was a coauthor of the book. However, the remainder of the book is clearly presented as solely the work of Paul; therefore, Paul is simply sending a greeting from a brother who was a significant part of Paul’s ministry.
One other point we need to make about authorship is that…
Paul wrote Colossians during his first Roman imprisonment (60–61 A.D.).
Paul tells us in 1:24 that he was “suffering for your sake,” and in 4:10, he calls Aristarchus his “fellow prisoner.” Paul was in prison a number of times, but most likely, he was writing from Rome during the imprisonment described in Acts 28, which tells us that Paul was under house arrest for 2 years. Most scholars estimate that this imprisonment lasted from 60–61 A.D.
Therefore, Paul doesn’t write this letter on the deck of a posh, Mediterranean cruise ship. Rather, he was suffering for the sake of the gospel, but Paul’s suffering didn’t hinder his passion for the ministry. Colossians is the work of man who loved God and wanted everyone to know him.
In sum, Paul wrote Colossians during his first Roman imprisonment during the years of 60–61 A.D. Verse 2 then tells us a little about…
The Recipients: Colossian Church (v. 2)
You can see on the map that the city of Colossae is in the south, central region of “Asia,” as it was then known. It was very close to the cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. 4:13 mentions that there were sister churches in both of those towns. Colossae was also about 125 miles east of Ephesus, which was a major hub for Paul’s ministry in Asia.
During the Persian Empire, Colossae was a wealthy and significant city, but by the first century, it had declined significantly, and Laodicea had become the more significant city. In fact, Colossae was probably the least significant city to receive a biblical letter.
But it’s not like the people of Colossae were uneducated country bumpkins. A major highway ran through Colossae; therefore, the people were exposed to all of the major philosophies and ideas of the day. We are going to see that this influence was impacting the church.
There was also an unusually large Jewish influence in Colossae. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that in 213 B.C., Antiochus the Great relocated 2,000 Jewish families to Colossae. And again, we are going to see that the Jewish faith was influencing the church.
Next lets talk about the church at Colossae. Notice that…
Epaphras started this church during Paul’s extended ministry in Ephesus (52–55 A.D.).
Paul tells us in 2:1 that he had never visited Colossae. Instead, he tells us in 1:7 that Epaphras founded the church at Colossae. This makes Colossians unique among Paul’s letters because it is the only letter we have from Paul that is addressed to a church he did not start.
But how did Epaphras get saved and what led him to start this church? The Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly, but Acts 19:9–10 give a likely explanation of what happened. 4:12 tells us that Epaphras was from Colossae, and it is likely that Epaphras visited Ephesus while Paul was there. He was converted and discipled. Paul then sent him back to Colossae with the gospel, and God used him to start this church.
As a side note, it’s really incredible to think about what God did during Paul’s time at Ephesus. Notice on the map that all seven churches addressed in Revelation 2–3 are not far from Ephesus. Very likely all of these churches were started as the gospel sounded out from Ephesus. We ought to be praying for God to do similar things through us.
Notice as well…
The church thrived under Epaphras’s leadership.
This church was now probably 5-7 years old, and God had done some incredible things in Colossae.
Notice in v. 2 that Paul calls them saints. It’s important to emphasize that this term does not describe a special class of Christians even though it is often used that way today. Rather, the NT consistently uses it to describe anyone who is saved. If you are a child of God, you are saint.
And this term says something very important about God’s will for you. The Greek term means “holy one.” It describes the fact that we have been set apart for God. We are his special possession. In light of how often we sin, it’s truly remarkable that God views us as saints in light of his grace, and the term challenges us to live out this very special calling.
Paul also calls the Colossians “faithful brethren.” The fact that Paul highlights faith is a reminder that the Christian life is fundamentally a life of faith and faithfulness. Faith in the gospel begins our Christian experience, and we must remain faithful to God throughout life. The Christian life is a race of endurance, and Paul praised God for the faithfulness of the Colossians.
As a result he wishes upon them “grace and peace.” The Christian faith is fundamentally based on grace, not merit, and so Paul wishes grace on this church. The second wish for peace came from the typical Jewish greeting. When Jews greet each other, they would says shalom or peace, and it was a wish for physical and spiritual blessing.
And so even though Paul had never met this church, he loved them, he prayed them, and he rejoiced over what God had done in their midst.
So what was the occasion that led Paul to write Colossians?
It’s pretty evident when you read Colossians that the primary issue that motivated Paul to write this book is that…
Heresy threatened the church.
Notice the warning Paul gives in 2:8. And it wasn’t just that Paul was concerned about something that might happen (2:20–21). Paul had heard that some form of false teaching had infiltrated the church, and he was very concerned that it might move them away from Christ and the gospel.
But one of the greatest challenges for understanding Colossians is that Paul never tells us exactly what this heresy was, and from what we can see in Colossians, it doesn’t quite fit with any of the major teachings we know of from that day, and so we are left to piece it together. As you can see on the handout, three characteristics of this heresy are pretty clear in the book.
It claimed to be based in wisdom and philosophical tradition (2:8).
Folks, this is true of just about any heresy that man has ever developed. They all begin with man proudly thinking that he knows more than God and that he can improve on what God has revealed. Verse 8 warns of a heresy that is based in human philosophy divorced from divine revelation. Of course the Greeks loved philosophy, and this heresy included elements of Greek philosophy that were contrary to Scripture. Second…
It claimed a higher knowledge based on mystical communion with angels (2:18).
The Jews believed that angels played a significant role in creation and in the giving of the Law. And it seems that rather than looking to the Christ of the Bible as a fully sufficient foundation for life, the false teachers were pushing the church to seek a higher knowledge through trying to talk with angels.
Isn’t that how human nature works? What God has said is never quite enough. We want to know a little more to satisfy our pride or to soften aspects of God’s Word that are hard. We think we can do better than the Bible. There is an interesting parallel here with Mormonism. Joseph Smith claimed that an angel gave him knowledge to add to Scripture, and thus he led many people away from the truth. Satan knows the heart of man, and it’s amazing how he recycles the same temptations over an over. Third…
It taught a works based righteousness that involved Jewish laws and ascetic practices (2:16, 20–21, 23).
Again, this is so typical of just about every heresy man has developed. God has offered us a gospel of free grace, but people want to earn a relationship with God. Verse 16 indicates that the Colossians were being urged to embrace certain aspects of the OT law that Jesus abolished in the cross.
And notice the language in vv. 20–21. Jesus had set them free from the Law, and yet human nature wants to trust in my works to get me to God. And v. 23 indicates that this heresy also involved asceticism, when it says “neglect of the body.” Asceticism is the idea that I can earn God’s favor by rejecting the basic needs and comforts of life. Essentially, I can earn please God by making myself miserable. Again, it makes no sense, but people do it all the time. Sinners struggle to just rest in the grace of God.
And so as it says on your handout, this heresy was a mixture of Jewish and Greek thought. And we will see that Paul saw it as an evil threat because it pushed people away from Christ as our only right foundation for knowledge, salvation, and holiness. It had to be driven out of the church.
But most likely Epaphras was struggling to know how to address the situation; therefore…
Epaphras visited Paul to seek help addressing the heresy.
At several points, the book indicates that Epaphras had traveled to Paul in Rome. He told Paul about all of the good that God had done, and then he told him about this terrible heresy. As a result…
Paul wrote Colossians, and Tychicus delivered it to the church (4:7).
4:12 says that Epaphras sent greetings, but for whatever reason, he didn’t return with the letter. Philemon 23 calls him “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus,” so maybe Epaphras got himself arrested. It’s hard to tell, but regardless 4:7 states that Tychicus carried the letter to the church.
In sum, the basic purpose of this letter is to confront the heresy that was threatening the Colossian church and to urge them to remain grounded in Christ.
So how does Paul do that? Let’s talk about the message of Colossians.
The Message: Stay rooted in Christ (2:6).
Like most heresies, the Colossian heresy probably didn’t look that bad; otherwise, no one would accept it. But it was a terrible threat to the gospel because it would move people off the foundation of Christ. Therefore, the key verse of Colossians is 2:6. Paul reminds us here that Christianity begins with receiving Christ. He is the one who saves.
And we must never move off this foundation. It’s not like we are saved by grace and then we go on to live the Christian life in our own power. We must continue to walk in Him—resting in his grace when we sin and drawing on his grace in the pursuit of godliness. And so Colossians is a call to stay rooted in Christ, which is why I’ve entitled the series “Walk in Him.”
I’d like to tease this out in three subthemes. First, Colossians emphasizes…
The Preeminence of Christ over Creation, Knowledge, Salvation, and Christian Living:
Again, we are going to see in Colossians that Jesus is so much more than my ticket out of hell. He is the creator, and someday he is going to fix his creation. Jesus is sovereign this world.
He is also the source of all knowledge, and we know him through Scripture. Therefore, we don’t need some kind of mystical experience of God to know him. And we certainly shouldn’t look to our own wisdom or brilliance to somehow add to the knowledge of God. The NT tells us over and over that God has revealed himself in Christ. Therefore, if we want to know God, all we need to do is look at Jesus as revealed in the Bible. Only then can we have a true foundation for knowledge.
And Jesus is also the only right foundation for salvation. Colossians emphasizes the fact that Jesus conquered sin in his death and resurrection; therefore, he is the only Savior.
Maybe there is someone here today that has never trusted in Christ for salvation. I hope you will see today that Jesus is the only way of salvation (2:13–15). According to v. 13, you are a sinner, and you are dead in your sin. But Jesus dealt with your sin when died on the cross. He destroyed every evil power. Therefore, you can be saved from the judgment you deserve by simply coming to Christ and putting your faith in him for salvation. I pray that you will come to him today and receive this wonderful gift.
And if you are saved, never move off that foundation because Jesus the foundation for pursuing godliness (3:1–3). The power to live the Christian life is not in me. It is in the fact that “my life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Christian, maybe you came to church today discouraged. You are frustrated with your failures and your sins. I hope you will stop looking to yourself for power and instead to run to Christ. Just like you depended on him for salvation, continue to walk in him trusting in his grace to help you go forward. There is hope for change in Christ.
Jesus is preeminent over all of life, and this leads to a second subtheme.
Gospel-Centered Holiness vs. Legalism:
I am very excited to dive into what Colossians has to say about how we pursue holiness. Paul is very clear in this book that I need to drive legalism out of my life because man made rules will never earn me favor with God.
But that doesn’t mean that I am free to just live how I want. No, if Christ lives inside me, he changes everything. We just read 3:1–3. Notice the conclusion in 3:5. That’s about as blunt and convicting as it gets. I have to drive sin out of my life down to the level of my passions and desires. But I don’t ultimately do this in my strength. I am to pursue gospel-centered holiness (3:9–10).
Folks, it is such a blessing to know that it’s not ultimately up to me to make myself a new man because I already am one. Jesus has changed me; therefore, I can pursue real holiness, not the fake stuff that legalistic religions try to manufacture.
I’m really looking forward to talking about how we rightly pursue gospel-centered holiness because there is so much confusion in our day about what legalism actually is and about how we actually go about pursuing holiness.
A third major theme in Colossians is…
The Advance of the Gospel among All Peoples (1:27–28):
Verse 27 reminds us that Christ is the hope of glory. He has changed everything for us. Therefore, we can’t just sit on our hands and selfishly bask in what we have received. We must preach Christ to all people.
Of course this fits so well with our theme for 2018. Folks, Christ is full of glory, and we are surrounded by people who do not give him the glory that he rightly deserves. We must tell them who he is and call them the worship him. And not only that, these people are desperately longing for hope and life. They need to hear that Christ is the only foundation that will ever satisfy their hearts. And so let’s go from here today committed to preaching Christ.
Folks, we serve a great Savior, and I am so thankful that we can learn more about him in this book, and so let’s all pray that God would show us Christ in Colossians and that we would be changed by what we see.