Two epistles were sent at the same time from the prison cell in Rome where the apostle Paul was incarcerated - one to Ephesus, and the other to Colosse. In the former we see the truth regarding the body of Christ, the Church; in the latter it is the Head of the body, Christ, who is prominent.
In the Colossian letter, the Person of the Lord is under attack from two sources: that of oriental Gnosticism, and also Jewish legalism. The Gnostics taught that there could be no direct approach to the throne of God, and one had to pass through intermediaries, thus denying the Lord Jesus His place of superiority (2.8-10, 18). The teaching of the legalists came from those who continually dogged Paul's steps, insisting that the former truths of the Jewish faith must be carried out to accomplish salvation. In this way, they denied the finished work of Calvary. This error is particularly dealt with in chapter 2 verses 11-17. These false doctrines had infiltrated the area, but they had not affected the believers, for Paul rejoices that they still had a steadfastness of faith in Christ (2.6). Nevertheless, it is always good to warn the saints of evil doctrine before it is manifested among us, for in this way they will be preserved.
The Structure of the Epistle
In chapter 1 we have two prayers (9-14); two firstborns (15-19); two reconciliations (20-22), and two ministries of Paul (23-29).
Chapter 2 brings before us the two errors of Gnosticism and Judaism.
Chapter 3 teaches two objectives of the believer: put off the old man, and put on the new man.
Chapter 4 speaks of two unities: in the ministry, and in fellowship.
In chapter 1 we see the Exaltation of Christ, and in chapter 2 the Exposure of the Creeds of Men. In chapter 3 there are Expectations in Conduct and, in chapter 4, Expressions of Communications are before us.
Much has been written and stated regarding whether Paul ever visited Colosse. Most would take it that Epaphras was the servant who was instrumental in starting the work of God there (1.7), although this is by no means clear as one looks at the events surrounding the establishment of the work. That the assembly met in the house of a wealthy slave owner is evident from the letter to Philemon verse 2, where we are told of "the church in thy house". It seems clear that Philemon was converted through the ministry of Paul, who was also familiar with the family and the character of the home, as he makes reference to Philemon's wife, Apphia, and his son, Archippus. Also, Paul was expecting to be released from prison through the prayers of the assembly, and looked for a lodging place in their home. He could hardly speak in the way he did had he not been among them at some time previously.
Paul wrote to the Colossians, "as ye also learned of Epaphras" (1.7), and the word "also" would imply that Epaphras was not alone in seeing the work at Colosse established, but that Paul had also had a part in it. It must be admitted, however, that there are some manuscripts that omit the word "also". Some draw attention to verse 4, and the words "since we heard", and say that this expression indicates that Paul had not been to those parts. But the same expression is used in Ephesians 1.15, and no one doubts that Paul had been to Ephesus. The thought is that he was constantly hearing, and reports were evidently being brought to the apostle regarding events in the various assemblies, and how the believers fared. It was not enough for Paul to see a work commence; he always longed to see and hear that the saints prospered as they served the Lord.
Again, some would refer to chapter 2 verse 1, and point out that Paul was unknown by face to the Colossian believers. It should be noticed, however, that the conjunction "and" (Gr kai) is used twice in this verse, the first use indicating Paul's knowledge of both Colosse and Laodicea, and the other relating to the many saints who had not seen Paul face to face.
We know from Acts 19.10 that Paul "continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks." This long stay in Ephesus would have given Paul much opportunity to have visited Colosse. Some would say that, had such a visit taken place, surely his chronicler, Luke, would have made mention of it. Perhaps that is true, but we know that Paul also visited the island of Crete, yet there is no record of this other than in his epistle written to Titus. Not all the details of Paul's itineraries were recorded for us; rather only those things that the Holy Spirit thought necessary for the saints as time passed by.
Chapter 1.1-2: The Salutation
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother, to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us now consider the servants who sent this letter to the Colossian assembly. Paul was linked to Christ by divine decree, as a gift of the ascended Man of Ephesians 4.11. Timothy was linked to the saints by salvation, and was a brother in the faith. When settling truth, as Paul is doing in this letter, it must be at the mouth of two or three witnesses, and this is the reason why Timothy is linked with him.
If we have two witnesses in verse 1, we find that the believers are also seen in a twofold way in verse 2. They are "saints", and "faithful brethren"; "saints" by calling, and "faithful brethren" by practice. The word "saint" is worthy of comment; it means 'holy one'. It is a word used of the Persons within the Godhead, as in the description of the Lord Jesus as "that holy thing which shall be born of thee" (Lk 1.35). The Lord Jesus used it of the Father when He prayed "Holy Father" (Jn 17.11), and it is constantly used of the Holy Spirit throughout the Word of God. Applied to us, the word means that we bear the character of divine Persons as we live in this world, and our lives should demonstrate that. It is only those who are saints that can be brought into the fellowship of any local assembly; there is no room for those out of Christ being brought into the gathering. The Colossians' position "in Christ" is emphasised. This is a dispensational term, and is only ever linked with those who are saved during this day of grace. If we have the people and the position that they enjoy, we also have the place of gathering - Colosse. It is a blessed thing to bear testimony for God in any locality, and also for us to appreciate the movements of God toward us.
From this point on, the apostle raises his voice in prayer on their behalf. Firstly, he gives thanks for the fact that the believers continue in the faith, and manifest love to all saints. Is it not a blessed thing to value the believers as those who have living links with the Lord Jesus and are His by divine calling? All is based on the hope that is the present enjoyment of that which we will receive at the coming of the Lord. This hope is not some vague or nebulous theory, but rather a certain prize that is laid up for the victor. It is also assured to us by the truth of the Gospel.
The Gospel had far-reaching effects, carried by those in dispersion, and by others who travelled throughout the Roman empire. Paul recorded that it had come into the entire world, and brought forth fruit, of which the Colossians were an evidence by the grace of God. That fruit had continually increased, and was the mark of salvation in their lives. The Word of truth is what had brought them to salvation (v 5), and their knowledge of the grace of God was also in truth (v 6).
(To be continued …)