The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Callan’s Introduction to Colossians

Posted by Dim Bulb on January 27, 2019


I The City of Colassae:

Colossae was an ancient city of southwestern Phrygia in the Roman Province of Asia. It was situated in the valley of the Lycus River about one hundred and twenty miles east from Ephesus and on the great highway of trade between the East and the West of the ancient world. At one time it enjoyed considerable importance, but declined with the foundation and growth of Laodicea, some ten miles to the west, about the middle of the third century B.C. Besides the wealth and prosperity which developed in the closely adjacent Laodicea, other factors which contributed to the decline and ruin of Colossse were the earthquakes that repeatedly shook it and the fame and attractiveness of Hierapolis, the Sacred City, situated only thirteen miles to the northwest. Hierapolis, the birthplace of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus and the later residence of the Apostle Philip of Bethsaida, was a pleasure and health resort and a centre of pagan worship.

In the time of St. Paul Colossae was but a small town or mere village, lacking any special industry or commercial importance. Its inhabitants, therefore (largely Phrygian, intermingled with Greeks and some Jews), had more leisure time than was wholesome for their spiritual welfare: they talked and speculated too much, and so developed some erroneous doctrines by attempting to express Christian ideas in the terms and forms of philosophic and religious thought then current in Phrygia and in Asia Minor generally. Repeated raids and devastations by the Saracens during the seventh and eighth centuries completed the destruction of Colossae and the town became a heap of ruins. Nothing remains of it now. The Lycus still flows through the valley, but the city once overhanging it on the upper part of its course, and forever distinguished by the letter of St. Paul, has long ago ceased to exist.

II. The Church of Colossae.

Since in the time of St. Paul the town of Colossse was far inferior in wealth, population and general importance to the neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis, one may naturally ask why he addressed an Epistle thither. It was doubtless the least important place to which the Apostle ever wrote any of his letters that have come down to us. Nor had he ever been there himself, as seems clear from Col. 1:4, 6-8, 2:1. In his journeys from the East through Asia Minor to the West it appears that he always kept to the “upper coasts” (Acts 19:1), following the Cayster route, which was shorter, and so easier for foot travelers like himself. Why, then, this Epistle to Colossae, and not to Laodicea or Hierapolis? The obvious and chief explanation seems to lie in the fact that Colossae was the home of Epaphras, Philemon and Onesimus, three special friends of St. Paul. Political and commercial relations were close between Colossae and Ephesus, and it must be that Epaphras and Philemon had come in contact with Paul and had been converted by him early during the Apostle’s sojourn in the latter city. These two then carried the faith back to Colossae, their own city. In fact, it seems clear from Col. 1:7, 8 that Epaphras became the founder of the Church in his native town; and from Phlm. 2, 3 it is plain that Philemon actively co-operated in propagating the new religion, even lending the use of his own house for the gatherings of the faithful. Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave, met St. Paul in Rome, and was converted by him shortly before the writing of this Epistle.

Moreover, the errors combated in this Epistle, though doubtless not confined to Colossae, appear to have been especially prevalent there, owing to its situation on the great highway of trade, and in particular to the comparatively leisurely life of its people. It is true that Laodicea was similarly situated, but its much greater population and intensive life of business allowed less time for the simmering of new thoughts and new ideas and the development of fanciful theories in religious matters. But the letter to Colossae and the ministry of Epaphras were by no means to be confined to the one town, but were to be extended to Laodicea and to the whole Lycus valley. It is reasonably certain that Epaphras evangelized that entire district, for St. Paul expressly says of him: “I bear him testimony that he hath much labor for you, and for them that are at Laodicea, and them at Hierapolis” (Col. 4:13). St. Paul also expressly ordered that this letter be read in the Church of Laodicea (Col. 4:16).

Another reason why this letter was sent to Colossse, rather than to the larger and more important city of Laodicea, is that very probably our Epistle to the Ephesians was in reality sent to the Laodiceans, and that St. Paul was referring to it in Col. 4:16. This probability we have already discussed in the Introduction to Ephesians, No. 4.

III. The Occasion and Purpose of This Letter.

From what has been said already, we can see how the new religion was likely to spread apace in Colossae, and how, owing to the character of its mixed population, there might be dangers to the purity and integrity of the faith there. And so it happened, as a matter of fact. Conditions became in a few years so serious that, when St. Paul was a prisoner in Rome the first time, Epaphras, the founder and head of the Church of Colossae (Col. 1:7-8, 4:12-13), deemed it necessary to go all the way to the Eternal City for the purpose of explaining the situation to the great leader and master.

Of course, the report given by Epaphras of Colossian conditions was not at all one of entire complaint and apprehensiveness; for the charity and faith of the Church as a whole were sufficiently encouraging to evoke St. Paul’s express commendation (Col. 1:8, 2:5). But false teachers had appeared and were sowing the seeds of doctrines which, if not checked, would imperil the faith they had received in its purity from their founder and his co-workers.

Just who these false teachers were and what their doctrines were in detail it is extremely difficult to determine; a multitude of conflicting opinions have been advanced. From the Epistle (Col. 2:8-23), however, we can gather the main outlines of the errors in question. In the first place, there were Judaizers who, perhaps claiming a higher way of perfection, wished to introduce the observance of the Law of Moses and rabbinical traditions, such as the ordinances regarding Sabbaths, new moons, etc., and the prohibition to eat, drink, taste, or even touch certain things, on the assumption that matter is evil. On the other hand, there were errors of a semi-Gnostic type tending to detract from the dignity of Christ, holding that the angels were superior or at least equal to Him, and that we must have access to God through them. All these errors were of Jewish origin, as the best Catholic and non-Catholic scholars agree, and as is plain from the allusions to Jewish observances, feasts, regulations, and the like.

Now, St. Paul wrote the present letter to correct such pernicious teachings and to give the faithful of Colossae a true conception of Christian life and practice, based on a correct understanding of the relation of Christ to God, to the universe, and to the Church. This he does first by a clear presentation of the true doctrine about Christ, which robbed the false teachers of the very foundation of their errors. Christ, he says, is our Redeemer and Saviour; He is the image of the invisible God; all things have been made in Him and by Him, and all consist in Him; He is the first-born from the dead, the head of the Church, and He exercises primacy over all things; He is the universal Mediator through whom alone peace and reconciliation have come to all; He is the explanation and the consummation of all God’s dealings and mysterious dispensations and the hope of our future glory (Col. 1:14-27); in Christ, finally, are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3-7). Thus, by a positive teaching of the truth does St. Paul attempt, in the first place, to correct the false doctrines that were spreading among the faithful of Colossse. His method of correction, in the second place, is by attacking more directly their errors, showing the futility and emptiness of a false ethical system which they vainly tried to dignify as a “philosophy” (Col. 2:8-23). All this will more clearly appear from an examination of the contents of the Epistle.

IV. Analysis of Contents. 

The Epistle to the Colossians is divided into four parts: an introduction (Col 1:1-8), a dogmatico-polemical part (Col 1:9—2:23), a moral part (Col 3:1—4:6), and a conclusion (Col 4:7-18).

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