Colossae: A City In Confusion
Study #1 Colossians 1:1-2
by Bob Burridge ©2021
I got a strange e-mail offer a few years ago. It didn’t look like the usual “spam”, or junk e-mail. It was a skillfully written piece of marketing worded in general terms to appeal to a broad marketing base. The sender was frustrated, lost her job, lost a fiancee, and was feeling purposeless with dashed dreams.
She told of going off to a secluded place out West where she had gone in her youth to “replenish her soul.” There she met an elderly Native man who calmly perceived all her problems. He offered her some sacred sand which had given his ancestors powers for centuries.
The e-mail then went on to show how after this mystical encounter her whole life changed. There was a new career, the one of her dreams. She met her soul mate and was in a wonderful relationship. And she had attained a higher awareness of self, life, and nature. She said that she never again had the feeling of being alone, or discouraged. Instead, she was filled with hope, faith, love, understanding, and self-awareness.
Then came the generous offer. If you sent her a self addressed envelope and $5 US currency she would send you a little bag of this sacred sand!
The offer reminded me of Satan’s approach to Eve in Eden. God’s promises were exchanged for lies promising that she will see more and be like God. That’s the way our spiritually crippled souls can be easily tempted. Driven by self-centered values and dreams of an easier way to make us feel better we fallen creatures tend to invent ways other than those laid out for us by God.
We have a serious warning in God’s word about dangerous deceptions. 1 John 2:16, “For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions– is not from the Father but is from the world.”
There is only one way to lasting contentment and real peace, as John writes in the very next verse, 1 John 2:17, “And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
There is still a lot of superstition in our so-called enlightened age, just like this magic sand offer. The willingness of fallen souls to believe it is nothing new. It’s as ancient as Eden. When people don’t know the teachings of Scripture, they still try to understand spiritual things, but perversions emerge offering false hope for troubled hearts. There are so many deceptive ideas that attractively present themselves. But they are the imaginations of men, and have not come from God.
The ancient city of Colossae was filled with pagan deceptions and life styles. Colossae was located along the Lycus River in Phrygia, which is in modern Turkey. It had grown up along a major trade route between Ephesus and Syria. The fertile soil made good pastures for sheep. And the chalky river water was perfect for dyeing fabrics. So Colossae became a major center for the garment industry. It also had a strategic location for moving troops in times of war. All this made it a great and prosperous city in that early time. Jewish colonists were attracted to settle in Colossae for business reasons. But the pagan culture drew the poorly grounded Jews into its heathen life style.
About 200 years before Christ two other near-by cities became important. Laodicea became the business and trade center. Hieropolis became a very popular resort area. Its hot volcanic springs were advertised to have magical healing powers. Magical superstition made this a good place for pagan worship, so temples were built there. Colossae couldn’t compete with the growing popularity of its neighboring cities.
By the time of Paul, it had become a small town. There was a congregation of Christians there. It met as a church in a private home. But its value and importance couldn’t be measured by its size. Paul was deeply concerned to write to them from Prison. And God honored them with a lasting place in the inspired Scriptures.
Paul may have traveled through the city on his way to Ephesus on his 3rd mission. Some Colossians may have come to hear him while he spoke at Ephesus (Acts 19:10). But the congregation in Colossae didn’t know him personally (2:1).
In God’s providence, while the Apostle was held as a prisoner in Rome, he was visited by two people associate with the small Colossian church. One visitor was Onesimus: a run-away slave who had just become a Christian. His master was Philemon, a member of the Colossian church, and owner of the house where the church met for worship and study. Paul’s other visitor was Epaphras: a minister of the Colossian congregation. It was his report that caused the writing of this letter. His concern was, the congregation was becoming confused by pagan teachings.
Paul convinced the run-way slave, Onesimus, to return to Colossae with Tychicus. And he used their return trip to write three letters to be delivered by them: One was a letter to the Ephesian Church. Another was a short note to Philemon asking him to forgive his runaway slave, and to accept him back as a brother in Christ. And there was this letter to the Colossian church. In it, Paul urged the believers to resist the dangerous ideas around them, and to remain faithful to Jesus Christ, as the center our focus as God’s people.
Today Colossae is gone. In the 60’s AD, a severe earthquake devastated the region. Laodicea and Hieropolis were rebuilt, but Colossae never fully recovered. Very little is left even of its ruins! Yet children still memorize verses from this letter. God still helps struggling Christians with the same advice Paul wrote to them.
Colossae has been gone for almost 2000 years,
but this letter is still relevant. It begins …
Colossians 1:1, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,”
The office of “Apostle” was unique to the 1st century church. They were men specially appointed by Jesus Christ to have special authority in the churches. Then to confirm their message as true, God gave them extraordinary abilities. They performed miracles, appointed elders, and received God’s direct revelation.
The Bible makes no provisions for this office to continue in the church. Once the Bible was completed the office of Apostle, and the extraordinary gifts such as miracles, tongues, and prophesy, ceased to have any further biblical purpose and were discontinued. God told the New Testament church how to select and ordain new Deacons and Elders. But there were no instructions given for passing on the office of Apostle.
Paul was called to be an apostle “by the will of God”. It wasn’t his own ambition. Unlike the false teachers in Colossae,
Christ himself had called Paul to the work of laying the foundation of the church. This is the authority that makes this epistle so powerful. It’s not the words of men. It’s the supernaturally given word of God.
Timothy also sent his greetings to the Colossians. He was a minister of the gospel who served primarily at Ephesus. He was visiting Paul in Rome when this letter was written. We don’t know if he had any past connection with the Colossian church.
The letter was written to people
Paul considered to be true Christians.
Colossians 1:2a, “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae:”
He called them “brothers in Christ”. We who are members of the covenant family of God are spiritual brothers and sisters. By the finished work of Jesus Christ, they were declared to be holy, so he called them saints. A “saint” is a word that applies to all believers in the Bible, not just to special ones. He commended them as those who had been faithful. Even though they were being troubled by false teachings, though some had wandered, they were still sheep held in the hand of Christ the Good Shepherd. That Shepherd was about to meet their needs by this carefully written letter.
They lived in a city with a deeply pagan outlook and way of life. Fallen hearts try to deal with spiritual needs by inventing superstitions and philosophies. In their minds and lives they totally separated the material and spiritual worlds from one another. But this was dealt with in different ways by different groups of people: Some ignored the spiritual realm seeing that it was far off, and unimportant. So they indulged in lusts and immorality as if there were no consequences. Others thought they could reach for the spiritual by hating anything material. So they abstained from anything that would bring physical pleasure. Many came to believe that God was far away and completely detached from the material world. They saw the angels as god’s mediaries to keep contact here for him. So they came to angels for help. They prayed to them, relied upon them and honored them.
The Jews in Colossae had been influenced by these pagan ideas and ways. Some were drawn into the luxurious and lustful life-style. Others became very strict abstainers, calling things evil and worldly just because they produced pleasure. Angels became more prominent than the covenant promises of God himself. And when the gospel came, some tried to fit Jesus into that blended scheme.
This letter shows how Paul said they should dealt with these errors. These are very much like problems we still face today in the contemporary Christian community.
Paul greeted them with his typical,
but significant greeting:
Colossians 1:2b, “… Grace to you and peace from God our Father.”
First he wished them grace. Greeks usually said “chai-re” (χαίρε), as their common greeting like our “hello”, or “greetings”. But here Paul modified it to “cha-ris” (χάρις), which means “grace”. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, sovereignly bestowed upon his chosen people.
Then he wished them peace. The old Hebrew greeting among Jews was, and still is, “shalom” (שלום) which means “peace”. It was a wish that God’s covenant peace would be upon them.
The Greek speaking Jews used “eireinei” (ειρηνη), the Greek word for “peace”. But it didn’t mean just freedom from outward problems. It’s the inner calm that comes to those who learn to rest in God’s promises. Paul wrote about the peace we have in Christ in Philippians 4:7 calling it “the peace of God”, “which surpasses all understanding” and that it “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
These covenant blessings come from only one source. They come from God our Father. Most ancient copies of this verse includes the phrase, “and from our Lord Jesus Christ”. A few leave it out. [It’s found in all the Byzantine texts, Codex Sinaiticus, and manuscripts A, C, and G] Whether it was originally included here isn’t of great importance. It is found in most of Paul’s other epistles, so we know what it says is true. As we will see, the centrality of Christ as the source of our blessings is a major theme in Colossians. Jesus said in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
The Colossians let the pagan ideas of their culture influence their lives. The ways they saw around them every day in their city defined their “normal”. But those ideas and ways alienated them from the blessings of God’s covenant. They were looking for happiness in ways that only made it more elusive.
– Those who minimized the spiritual looked for satisfaction in ways forbidden by God’s word. They abandoned biblical morality for the ways of the society they lived in.
– Others were used to superstitious rituals and a life of abstaining from good things. So they attacked anything that brought pleasure, even things God himself blessed.
– And some others looked to angels to keep them safe and happy. But God’s word said that angels were only messengers of God to whom alone they should pray. They even made Jesus out to be just another angel instead of the true Son of God.
So this church had become like the city in which it was situated: a place of confusion.
Today we see churches infected
with this same kind of dualism.
The spiritual is often separated from the material in their thoughts and lives.
– Some who claim to be Christians avoid the spiritual facts behind things as if they might intrude into their fun. They look for happiness in the life style, language, attitudes, and morality of the fallen world around them. Even worship is less centered on God’s truth, and becomes more like the entertainment of the world. God’s teachings are ignored or re-defined so they can follow what’s popular at the time.
– Others piously abstain from physical things as if they were the evil themselves. They condemn as sinful a long list of things they consider worldly. By their self-denial they feed a sense of spiritual pride and self-superiority over others. Their worship is often geared to mystical feelings and high emotion. It makes them feel like they’re in touch with a higher realm, and separated from the lowly world where the less spiritual people live.
With this separation of the spiritual from the material, some look to angels or dead saints for their help. They religiously go to these spiritual mediaries, pray to them and count on them instead of a personal relationship with God. God is thought of as not being directly available to them.
These are serious and dangerous errors that need to be corrected. The spiritual and material realms together make up God’s good creation. We as humans are both body and soul. Neither part can be diminished in importance or wrongly used. God’s word shows us how we can find better satisfaction than the pleasures offered by just material things. We can partake of all God’s made, as long as we used it in ways that please the One who made everything.
We can approach God himself. We don’t turn to angels or departed saints. Angels are God’s messengers which have been sent to do as he directs them, but they are not under our authority. We come directly to our Heavenly Father on the basis of the promises made to us in his Covenant of Grace, and purchased for us by Jesus Christ who came to suffer in our place for our sins.
Not everyone would believe their problems in life could be solved by a bag of magic sand. However, many believe there’s help in religious and superstitious rituals that have no foundation in the Bible. Some believe they would be better served by the carnal enticements of a fallen world. Some turn to angels or departed saints rather than directly approaching God by Jesus Christ in his Covenant. So today, just like the world of the Colossians, lies, immorality, superstition, and mysticism still invade christian lives. Some turn in blind abandon to false hopes and delusions.
Our study of Colossians will help us put God’s better way into practice. As brothers and sisters in God’s covenant family, forgiven by grace and kept by his promises, we can learn to live in this world without missing out on pleasures, yet without offending the God who loved us and came to redeem us. That difficult balance can be maintained by principles in God’s word.
This epistle can help us live honorably while in the midst of a city of confusion.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.