The Epistle to the Colossians is one of three or four letters which were written by Paul around the same time and sent to various Christians in the Roman province of Asia by the hand of his friends Tychicus and Onesimus. The others were the Epistles to the Ephesians and to Philemon, together (it may be) with the enigmatic “epistle from Laodicea” mentioned in Colossians 4:16. At the time when he wrote these letters Paul was a prisoner. While arguments have been advanced for the view that they were written from Caesarea or Ephesus, it is more probable that they were written from Rome during the two years which (according to Acts 28:30) Paul spent in custody there.

Some years previously, from his headquarters in Ephesus, Paul and his colleagues had evangelized the province of Asia (Acts 19:10). The valley of the River Lycus, in which Colossae lay, was one of the districts evangelized at that time—not, it appears, by Paul in person, but by his trusty lieutenant Epaphras. Now Epaphras had paid Paul a visit in Rome and told him of the state of the churches in the Lycus valley. Much of his news was encouraging, but there was one very disquieting feature: at Colossae there was a strong inclination on the part of the Christians to accept an attractive line of teaching which (although they did not suspect it) was calculated to subvert the pure gospel which they had believed and bring them into spiritual bondage.

The Colossian Heresy

It was mainly to refute this teaching that Paul wrote the Epistle to the Colossians. We have no formal exposition of the false teaching—commontly called “the Colossian heresy”—but we can to some extent reconstruct it from Paul’s allusions to it.

Basically the heresy was Jewish; this seems clear from the place which it gave to legal ordinances, circumcision, food regulations, the sabbath, new moon and other prescriptions of the Jewish calendar. But on the Jewish foundation there had been erected a philosophical superstructure which was non-Jewish in origin—an early and simple form of what later came to be known as Gnosticism. In this part of Asia Minor the barriers between the Jewish communities and their pagan neighbors were not very effective. Social intermingling led to religious fusion, and the Colossian heresy may be described as a Jewish-Hellenistic syncretism which had made room for some Christian elements in its system so as to attract the young churches of the area.

In this system the angelic beings through whom the Jewish law had been given (cf. Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2) were identified with the lords of the planetary spheres, “principalities and powers,” who had a share in the fulness of the divine nature and controlled the lines of communication between God and man. Since they were in a position to cut off men from access to God, tribute must be paid to them in the form of law-keeping. To break the law incurred their displeasure, and they had to be placated by severe self-denial and penance. Christ himself, it was probably held, could not have passed from heaven to earth or back to heaven without their permission. Indeed, the fact of his suffering and death was a token of his inferiority to them. And similarly his servants, such as Paul, whose ministry was attended by so much tribulation, had clearly not attained that degree of control over the cosmic powers which would have made it possible to avoid all this tribulation.

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Its False Appeal

This kind of teaching undoubtedly appealed to a certain religious temperament, the more so as it was presented as a form of advanced teaching for a spiritual elite. Christians were urged to go in for this higher wisdom, to explore the hidden mysteries by a series of successive initiations until they achieved perfection. Baptism was only a preliminary initiaton; those who would pursue the path of truth farther must put off all material elements by means of a rigorous asceticism until they were transported from this material world of darkness into the spiritual realm of light, and thus had experienced full redemption.

But however attractive many might find this cult, Paul condemns it as specious make-believe. Far from constituting a more advanced grade of knowledge than that presented in the apostolic preaching, it was totally inconsistent with that preaching and threatened to overthrow the foundations of Christianity. A system which exalted the planetary powers must enthrone fate in place of the will of God, and a system which brought men into bondage to these powers must deny the grace of God.

Paul’S Corrective Teaching

To this “tradition of men,” Paul opposes the true tradition of Christ. The planetary powers have no part at all in the divine fulness; that fulness is completely embodied in Christ. It is in Christ, too, that all wisdom and knowledge are concentrated, and in him all wisdom and knowledge are accessible to believers—not only to a spiritual elite, but to all. The planetary powers are in no sense mediators between God and man; that role is filled by him who unites Godhead and manhood in his one person. He is not inferior to them; his sovereignty over them is established by twofold right. First, it was by him and for him that these powers were created, together with everything else that exists; secondly, it was he who vanquished them when they assaulted him on the cross, and liberated from their now impotent grasp those who formerly had been held in bondage by them. Why should those who were united with Christ think it necessary to appease powers which owed their very being to him? And why should those who by faith had died and risen with Christ, thus receiving a share in his victory, render any further service to those powers whom he had so completely conquered? Far from being an advanced stage of wisdom, this angel-cult bore all the marks of immaturity; it called on those who had come of age in Christ to go back to the apron-strings of infancy.

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Christ’S Supremacy Over All

In his reply to the Colossian heresy Paul unfolds the cosmic significance of Christ more fully than in his earlier epistles. It is not entirely absent from the earlier epistles, as may be seen from 1 Corinthians 1:24; 2:6–10; 8:6 and Romans 8:19–22. Here, however, it is expounded at length.

Justification by faith, fundamental as it is to Paul’s gospel, does not exhaust his gospel. In the age of the Reformation it was inevitable, and indeed most desirable, that special attention should be concentrated on the means by which the individual soul is accepted as righteous in God’s sight. But in some quarters Paulinism has come to be identified so exclusively with the insights of Galatians and Romans, that the cosmic and corporate aspects of the gospel unfolded in Colossians and Ephesians have been felt to be un-Pauline. There is room in true Paulinism for both, and contemporary evangelicalism must similarly make room for both if it is not to be lopsided and defective.

In particular, the truth of Christ’s supremacy over all the powers in the universe is one which modern man sorely needs to learn. He is oppressed by a sense of impotence in the grasp of merciless forces which he can neither overcome nor escape. These forces may be Frankenstein monsters of man’s own creation, or they may be horrors outside his conscious control; either way he is intimidated by the vastness of those fateful currents which may sweep him to destruction against his will. And to modern man in his frustration and despair the gospel of Christ as it is presented in this epistle is the only message that can bring hope. Christ crucified and risen is Lord of all; all the forces in the universe are subject to him, well-disposed and ill-disposed alike. To be united to Christ by faith is to be liberated from the thralldom of hostile powers, to enjoy perfect freedom, to gain the mastery over the dominion of evil because Christ’s victory is ours.

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The arguments which have been used against the authenticity of Colossians cannot stand up to serious examination. Some of them, as has been said, depend on an unwarranted restriction of “Paulinism.” The type of heresy which the epistle attacks is not the developed Gnosticism which we meet in the second century, but an incipient Gnosticism such as was prone to emerge in the first century and even earlier in areas where Judaism of the Dispersion was influenced by dominant trends of Hellenistic and Oriental thought. If Paul uses terms here in a rather different sense from what they mean in his earlier epistles, we need not be surprised; the sense which he gives to a number of technical terms in Colossians may well be due to the sense in which they were employed by the heretical teachers. Some parts of Col. 1:9–23 have been singled out as specially un-Pauline in character; but in part of this section (verses 12–17) we probably have echoes of a primitive Christian confession of faith. The mediating theory that Paul wrote a shorter letter to Colossae which some later hand expanded by the incorporation of sections from Ephesians is condemned by its own complexity.


The Epistle falls into five main sections:

1. Salutation (Col. 1:1–2).

2. The Person and Work of Christ (Col. 1:3–2:7).

3. False Teaching and its Antidote (Col. 2:8–3:4).

4. The Christian Life (Col. 3:5–4:6).

5. Personal Notes and Final Greeting (Col. 4:7–18).

As in most of Paul’s epistles, the doctrinal part is followed by a practical part, the two being linked together logically by the conjunction “therefore” (Col. 3:5). Because that is the doctrine, he says in effect, this is how you should live (cf. Rom. 12:1; Eph. 4:1). Or, as our Lord put it: “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17).

The practical injunctions of Col. 3:5–4:6 are arranged according to what appears to have been a well-established catechetical method in primitive Christianity; they may be subdivided under the headings: “Put off” (3:5–11), “Put on” (3:12–17), “Be subject” (3:18–4:1), “Watch and pray (4:2–6).


Of all the commentaries on the Greek text of Colossians, the best is J. B. Lightfoot’s (1875), recently reprinted by Zondervan. Less brilliant than Lightfoot’s, but a piece of sound scholarship, is T. K. Abbott’s work in the International Critical Commentary series, where it shares a volume with the same writer’s commentary on Ephesians (1897). The most recent commentary of this kind is an excellent work by Professor C. F. D. Moule in the new Cambridge Greek Testament series (1957). On the English text there is a useful commentary in the Cambridge Bible series by H. C. G. Moule (1893). The same writer’s Colossian Studies (1898) is more devotional in character. A. T. Robertson produced an interesting study of the epistle in Paul and the Intellectuals (Stone Lectures, 1926). E. F. Scott expounded Colossians together with Ephesians and Philemon in a volume of the Moffatt New Testament Commentary (1930). The exposition of Colossians in the New International Commentary on the New Testament by the present writer will soon be published in the same volume as E. K. Simpson’s exposition of Ephesians.

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