Monday, February 8, 2010

Colossians-A Historical Background Study

Doing a historical background study is helpful in understanding the specific situation and setting of the author and the reader of biblical literature. It's also important to discover the author's intended meaning of the text in order to interpret it. We can do this by learning the historical situation of the author and his reader. "To understand the author's intended meaning, the student of the Bible must recapture, as far as possible, those elements that gave rise to his intentions. This kind of study enables the student to step behind the scenes of the text and understand the 'why' of the book's contents."[1] In this historical background study of the Letter to the Colossians we will see that the Apostle Paul is the author, writing from Rome, to the gentile believers in the Lycus Valley in Asia Minor, who were part of a growing and vibrant Christian fellowship that was struggling with false teachings. Having this background we can then have the context to understand God's message to the Colossians and to ourselves.

The author of the book of Colossians is the Apostle Paul. Paul begins the letter and identifies himself clearly in verse 1, "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,"[2] and again in verse 1:23, "if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister." The author is also identified as Paul at the end of the book in verse 4:18, "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you."

This last verse also sheds light on the circumstances of Paul as he wrote the letter. "Remember my chains" in verse 4:18 seems to indicate that he is a prisoner when he wrote it. This clue helps us date the book around the early 60's. It coincides with Luke's account of Paul' imprisonment in Rome in Acts 28. During this first Roman imprisonment, Paul had the freedom to write and interact with visitors. That was probably not the case after the great fire in Rome and the beginning of the Neronian persecution in 64 A.D. Also, the tone of the book differs from that of Second Timothy, which is regarded as Paul's last letter and was likely written around 68 A.D. Therefore, Paul, most likely wrote Colossians around 60-62 A.D.

During Paul's first imprisonment in Rome, he had many visitors, "He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance" (Acts 28:30-31). Paul had a chance to write letters to both the churches he had planted and to those he hadn't. The Colossian church was one he hadn't planted but now had a chance to write to, concerning several issues they faced.

Paul had never been to Colossae and was not the one who had brought the Gospel there, as we see in verse 2:1, "For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face." Epaphras, a resident of Lycus Valley where the city of Colossae lies, is the one who most likely brought the message of the Gospel there, "just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf “ (Colossians 1:7).

He is also the one who brought the news of the church to Paul, as he was a prisoner in Rome. Epaphras brought news of a vibrant and growing community of faith, "Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven" (Colossians 1:4-5). This was an encouragement to Paul and his followers, "And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding" (Colossians 1:9). Epaphras had also brought some unpleasant news of false teachings that had sprung up among the Colossian Church. This is the backdrop from which Paul wrote this letter, as an encouragement and correction on the Christian life.

To understand better the theme and purpose of Paul's letter it is important to understand the intended reader to whom Paul directed this letter. The Colossians were living in the Lyscus Valley in lower Asia Minor. The area was about 120 miles east of Ephesus located on an important trade route. Colossae had once been an important Roman military outpost and had also been the center of economic activity. Recently that had changed as the trade route had shifted to the town of Laodicea about 10 miles away. The area was largely Romanized and would have had the typical Roman religious, political and cultural practices that were common in the Romanized world. Textile manufacturing was the main economic activity. Specifically a unique type of wool was produced there. "The chief article of commerce, for which the city was well known, was colossinus, a peculiar wool that was somewhat purple in color."[3]

Although addressed to the Colossians, Paul includes the Laodiceans in his intended audience in verse 4:16, "And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea." Among the readers, in verses 3:18-22, he also addressed people in their individual roles in life: wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters. Paul is writing to real people dealing with real life issues.

They were mostly a gentile audience as we can see from verse 1:27, "To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." Further evidence, showing them as gentiles is Paul describing them as uncircumcised, "And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses" (Colossians 2:13).

The purpose of Paul's letter to the Colossians is two-fold: One is to express Paul's joy at the faith and love that he had heard about from Epaphras, in verse 1:4, and the other was to combat and warn against the false teachings he had heard about as referenced in verse 2:4. Paul doesn't specifically name the false teaching, but it has become known as the "Colossian Heresy." It addresses the following areas: The nature of Christ (1:14-22; 2:8-15), A Human Philosophy (2:8-18, 2:3), it had Jewish roots and elements (2:11, 3:11, 2:8), asceticism (2:20 23), angel worship (2:18), and included an element of elitist mystical secrecy representative of a "proto" or insipient Gnosticism.

His warning begins in verse 2:8, "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ." The heresy had philosophical mystical elements that were undermining Christ and the Gospel. "From this warning it has usually been inferred that there was a particular form of teaching current in the Lycus Valley, to which the church of Colossae and the neighboring churches were exposed. This teaching was superficially attractive, but in fact its tendency was to undermine the Gospel. Hence a warning was deemed necessary." [4]

Against this false teaching Paul's delivers his rebuttal by explaining the real nature of Christ. Namely, He delivered us from darkness 1:13, He redeemed our sin 1:14, He is the image of God 1:15, He created all things 1:16, He holds all things together 1:17, He is the head of the Church 1:18, and in Him the goodness of God dwells 1:19. Paul's theme is that Christ is preeminent.

This theme is important to the believers in Colossae. It solidifies the gospel message that was taught by Epaphras and helps to combat the false teachings that had begun to arise. An interesting note is that Paul wanted this letter to be read at another church, in Laodicea. In other words, it is to be read broadly to a wider audience as well. It’s likely that the "Colossian Heresy" was an issue elsewhere as well. As Paul wrote this letter from his house arrest in Rome he was sending a specific message to people at that historical point in time. But, for readers today, understanding the historical background of this letter can help us understand and rebuff similar issue we encounter today. That is the strength of doing historical background study, understanding the context for God's message so that we can apply it to our lives today.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Copyright 2007, Crossway Bibles, Wheaton Illinois.

Frederick F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Copyright 1984 Wm. B. Erdmann’s publishing Company, Grand Rapids Michigan.

Robert B Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, Copyright Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney 1990.


[1] Robert A. Vogel, Learning to Interpret Scriptures, Historical Background Study Assignment Sheet, DBS 506YE DVD.

[2] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted, Crossway Bibles, 2007.

[3] Robert B Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, ãRobert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney 1990

[4] Frederick F. Bruce, The New International commentary on the New Testament. Copyright 1984 Wm. B. Erdmans publishing Company, Grand Rapids Michigan 49503

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