In New Testament times, Colossae was a small town, relatively unimportant by worldly standards compared to its towering neighbor, Ephesus. Though small, it was cosmopolitan with diverse religions and philosophies, including sects of Judaism. In the second century BC the Greeks relocated several thousand Jews to Colossae from Mesopotamia. These cultural facts played into the “Colossian heresy,” a term coined by Lightfoot, a syncretistic doctrine that diluted Christ’s uniqueness and sufficiency for salvation.
Today, no town remains but the site has been discovered by archeologists including the remains of a church building. Colossae was located in the valley of the Lycus River in the western portion of modern Turkey. In Paul’s day it was part of the Roman province of Asia. This thickly populated area had many Christian communities. Along with Hierapolis (13 miles away) and Laodicea (11 miles away), it was the third city in a triangle that was probably evangelized during the period of Paul’s fruitful ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:10). We don’t know much about the founding of this particular congregation, but here are the facts we do know:
Paul had apparently not visited (1:4; 2:1). He may have visited later, but he was in prison when he wrote this Epistle (4:3, 10, 18).
Epaphras was from Colossae and was probably instrumental in evangelizing the area (1:7, 4:12-13).
Archippus seems to have had a leadership role (4:17; Philemon 2).
A congregation met in the house of Philemon, apparently a wealthy slave owner. Onesimus was his slave who ran away and was converted under Paul’s ministry (4:9, Philemon 10).
The Christian communities of western Asia thrived, but they also had difficulties (see the letters to the seven churches in Revelation). Laodicea was beset with problems of affluence, and as stated above, Colossae was troubled by philosophies that weakened their faith in the all-sufficiency of Christ. See the Theological Themes below for a fuller discussion.
Below are four options for designing a series from Colossians. The first covers the entire book. The next series focuses on the theological indicative (Christology), and the third expounds the moral imperative (ethical commands). The final series is very short and deals with three themes of Colossians: Christology, union with Christ, and ethical implications. A high-level fly over might help ground new Christians in the essentials of the faith.
Note, for the first series I have suggested exegetical and homiletical ideas.
Colossians: Our Life in Christ (12 weeks)
Text: Colossians 1:1-8
Exegetical Idea: Paul thanks God for the Colossians because they have heard and received the gospel message and because the gospel is now reaching more people and bearing fruit, just as their hope is producing faith toward Christ and love toward the saints.
Big Idea: Thank God for the good news that changes us.
Text: Colossians 1:9-14
Exegetical Idea: Paul prays that the Colossians will know God’s will that they might walk worthy of the Lord by doing good works, growing in knowledge, being empowered to persevere, and joyfully thanking the Father, who has delivered them into the kingdom of the Son.
Big Idea: Know your destination, receive power for the journey, and then walk the path.
Text: Colossians 1:15-23
Exegetical Idea: Paul describes the surpassing work of the exalted Christ with regard to both creation and redemption, which applies not only to the cosmos, but especially to believers. For Christ reconciles them out of their past hostility in order to present them in the future perfect before God; therefore, believers ought to remain in the faith they received in the gospel.
Big Idea: Christ is above all, has done it all, now you have it all, so don’t move at all.
Text: Colossians 1:24-29
Exegetical Idea: As an apostle, Paul has been entrusted by God with an obligation to proclaim the mystery of Christ to all people, including the Gentiles, so that all people might be united and brought to maturity in Christ, and toward this end Paul labors and suffers extensively.
Big Idea: The mystery concealed is now revealed, so tell people!
Text: Colossians 2:1-5
Exegetical Idea: Paul describes how he works specifically for the Colossians, that they might be able stand against deception as a tight-knit church community that possesses the full treasures of knowledge in Christ.
Big Idea: When we’re knit together in love and knowledge, deception cannot tear us apart.
Text: Colossians 2:6-23
Exegetical Idea: Paul warns the Colossian believers against submitting themselves to the regulations of Jewish law and rituals of pagan religion, for the one is a mere shadow of Christ and the other is the fruit of human imagination, and neither can save from the flesh.
Big Idea: False teaching: name it and disclaim it.
Text: Colossians 3:1-4
Exegetical Idea: Paul exhorts the Colossians to seek to live in light of heaven and in light of their identity in Christ, for they have died and been raised with Christ in the past, their lives now belong to Christ in the present, and they will in the future be revealed with Christ in glory.
Big Idea: Think heaven, live earth.
Text: Colossians 3:5-11
Exegetical Idea: Paul exhorts the Colossians to stop living in their former way of life apart from Christ by putting to death the practices of that former life and to embrace their identity as new persons who are renewed into the image of Christ.
Big Idea: Since you've been made new, be made new.
Text: Colossians 3:6-17
Exegetical Idea: Believers must put on the virtues of Christ that will allow them to live in unity with one another, to grow together through the Word of Christ, and to honor the Lord Jesus in all things.
Big Idea: Now that you've put off your dirty clothes, it's time to get dressed.
Text: Colossians 3:18-4:1
Exegetical Idea: Paul instructs the Colossians regarding how they ought to live out their new life of Christ in their household roles transformed as wives and husbands, children and fathers, slaves and masters, doing all things in a manner pleasing to their Lord Jesus.
Big Idea: In Christ, family members are different on the outside but the same inside.
Text: Colossians 4:2-6
Exegetical Idea: Paul instructs the Colossians to use their communication—prayer, clear declaration of the mystery of Christ, and gracious speech—as a witness towards the outsiders.
Big Idea: To spread the gospel, use words that are prayerful, clear, and gracious.
Text: Colossians 4:7-18
Exegetical Idea: In his final greetings, Paul encourages the Colossians by describing his gospel partners who should be held in high esteem for their work character.
Big Idea: We're in this [gospel work] together.
Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (five weeks)
Text: Colossians 1:9-14
Title/Theme: Lord of Our Salvation
Text: Colossians 1:15-20
Title/Theme: Lord of Creation and the Church
Text: Colossians 1:24-29
Title/Theme: Mystery of God
Text: Colossians 2:8-15
Title/Theme: Don’t Let Anyone Fool You
Text: Colossians 2:16-23
Title/Theme: Don’t Let Anyone Disqualify You
No Longer Who You Were (seven weeks)
Text: Colossians 3:1-4
Title/Theme: You Are No Longer Who You Were
Text: Colossians 3:5-11
Title/Theme: So . . . Put to Death and Put Away
Text: Colossians 3:12-17
Title/Theme: So . . . Put On
Text: Colossians 3:18-19
Title/Theme: Husbands and Wives
Text: Colossians 3:20-21
Title/Theme: Children and Parents
Text: Colossians 3:22-4:1
Title/Theme: Servants and Bosses
Text: Colossians 4:2-6
Title/Theme: Spread the Word
Colossians Fly Over (three weeks)
Text: Selected texts dealing with Christology
Title/Theme: Who Is Christ?
Text: Selected texts dealing with union with Christ
Title/Theme: Who Are We?
Text: Selected texts dealing with ethics and behavior
Title/Theme: How Should We Live?
You might like to follow your series from Colossians with a single sermon from Philemon because those two books are joined at the hip. Try a first person narrative from the perspective of Onesimus as he recounts his life as a slave, running away, finding Christ through Paul who was in prison, and then being sent back to Philemon with a new heart.
Colossians is an early example of apologetics as Paul battled a philosophy that threatened to subvert the gospel. While the philosophy is not named, it seems to have been a combination of legalistic Judaism, early Gnosticism, and Christianity. These elements were present in the amalgam: ascetic practices, worship of angels, and pride in superior knowledge (2:16-18). This last element would come to full flower in the second century under the name “Gnosticism” (from the Greek for “knowledge,” gnosis) against which Tertullian and Irenaeus wrote.
The Colossians seem to have been troubled by a kind of “proto-Gnosticism.” It taught that spiritual beings controlled the natural world and served as mediators between God and humans. The angels ruled the heavenly spheres and thus controlled events on earth. Modern astrology teaches something similar. Humans were powerless before these star-gods, gripped by a pitiless fate, but ascetic and occult practices could offer some escape and hope of salvation. Such practices curried the favor of the astral deities. Although the worldview was largely deterministic, Gnosticism gave some hope to a select group of initiates on how to give reverence to the “elemental spirits” (2:8, 20). You can see how Gnosticism undermined Christ as creator and all-sufficient Redeemer.
Asceticism was necessary because Gnosticism was a dualistic philosophy. God, who is Spirit, was good, but physical matter was debased. So to get closer to God, one had to deny the body and all things material. Paul preserved some of the actual slogans of the false teachers: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (2:21). Abstinence was mixed with legalistic Judaism and accounts for the Epistle’s mentioning of Sabbath, feast days (2:16), circumcision (2:11), and possibly Jewish dietary laws (2:16).
The Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to vehemently and uncompromisingly oppose this strange blend of religion and philosophy. It was a “self-made religion” (2:23), constructed by mere human wisdom (2:8). Paul contends that all fullness dwells in Christ and we have no need for any other mediator between us and God. Christ is the highest wisdom (2:2-3), and he is available to all people, not just an elite (1:26-28).
Indeed, the primary theological theme of Colossians is Christology, and preaching this short Epistle gives us the perfect opportunity to exalt him. Colossians 1:15-20 was probably an early hymn or creed and is one of the soaring peaks in the Himalayas of New Testament Christology.
Below is a description of Christ from just the first chapter. Jesus is:
The embodiment of full deity (1:15, 19).
The head of the church (1:18).
Resurrected, the firstborn from the dead (1:18).
Redeemer (1:14) and Reconciler of all things through his cross (1:20).
Three other theological themes grow out of the Epistle’s Christology: gospel, salvation, and union with Christ. The gospel is the word of the truth (1:5) and the grace of God (1:6) which gives hope (1:23). Through the perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus, God rescued humanity. He transferred us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of his beloved Son (1:13). This rescue occurs in individual lives when we receive the gift of salvation by faith. With mighty spiritual power God creates new people by uniting them to the life of Christ. This is our hope of glory (1:27, 3:1-4). We are buried and raised with him in baptism (2:12). This verse that will demand your best theological thinking and explanation as you expound the meaning and operation of baptism—whether it is merely symbolic or if it is a replacement for Old Testament circumcision, the means whereby people enter the new covenant with God.
Epistles are “task theology”—they apply rich theology to the circumstances of individual congregations. In the case of Colossians, the syncretistic philosophy-religion was threatening to lead the believers away from Christ. The first half of Colossians is a storeroom of Christology bursting its bars with truth about Jesus and the salvation God works through him. In typical Pauline fashion, the second half applies that truth to daily living—household relationships, sexuality, church life, speech, and so forth.
When preaching from Epistles, this is the way to apply the truth. Start with theology and then show how it impacts daily life. If we preach imperatives without theology, we sound like scolds, heaping obligation without providing motivation or assistance. Because believers share the life of Christ, we are to “put to death” pagan desires and practices regarding sex (3:5-6) and “put away” sins of speech such as slander and obscene talk (3:8). In contrast, we are to “put on” compassion and humility (3:12).
The rich doctrines of Christology and soteriology also relate to unity in the body where “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all” (3:11). When this body gathers for corporate worship, we are to teach and admonish one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (3:16).
In the last part of Chapter 3 and first part of Chapter 4, Paul’s application becomes even more specific as he writes in the style of a “household table” (3:18-4:1)—a genre common in the ancient world for cataloging the duties of husbands, wives, fathers, children, and slaves. (For other NT household tables see Ephesians 5:22-6:9; 1 Timothy 2:8-15, 6:1-2; Titus 2:1-10; 1 Peter 2:12-3:7; and The Didache 4:9-11—a handbook of church life from the first century). Whether you are egalitarian or complementarian you will need wisdom to contextualize the Lord’s instruction to husbands and especially to wives—“submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord” (3:18).
In my own preaching from this passage, I have found it helpful to describe Christianity as a “third way,” neither entirely progressive nor entirely traditional. Rather, Christian worldview and behavior, including behavior in the house, is rooted in the theology of union with Christ. Notice the sentences that headline the household table: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above. . . . Set your mind on things that are above. . . . You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:1-3). “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you. . . . You have put off the old self and put on the new self” (3:5-9).
Roman culture was quite traditional, as is true today of some African and Middle Eastern cultures. In Paul’s day, the husband/father was potentate and master of the house. Household tables often exhorted husbands to care for their wives but never to love them. The Roman law, called patria potestas even gave fathers the right to kill newborns deemed undesirable. Seneca, a renowned statesman in Rome at the time Paul wrote Colossians, said, "We slaughter a fierce ox; we strangle a mad dog; we plunge a knife into a sick cow. Children born weak or deformed we drown" (quoted in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary).
Into that world came Christianity as a third way. It infiltrated like yeast in dough. Husbands are commanded to love their wives. Fathers should not “provoke” their children “lest they become discouraged (3:21). Even the relationship most foreign and repugnant to us—slavery—is transformed when masters and slaves are “in Christ.” Slaves should work for Christ and masters should remember that they too have a Master.
So Christianity would have sounded revolutionary in Paul’s day, but it is not entirely progressive. Each member of the household fulfills defined roles. Wives are to “submit.” This will strike the ears of many modern listeners, especially in the West, as foreign, outdated, or even repugnant. If you feel uncomfortable proclaiming this portion of God’s inspired Word, be careful to not cut the legs out from under this command.
The issue of slavery will need special care as your congregation hears 3:22-4:1 through modern ears. Many preachers use this passage to speak about the relationship between employee and employer, and I believe that this passage can be extended that way, but first you will need to speak with candor about Christianity and slavery. The NT did not abolish slavery, but as a third way, it greatly modified it and planted the seeds that later bore the fruit of abolition. One way to help listeners lower their shields is to point out that in the ancient world, unlike antebellum America, slavery was not linked to race. It was universally practiced in an age that demanded a multitude of workers for manual tasks, farming in particular, but also including “professions” such as tutor and accountant.
My Encounter with Colossians
If you love Christ, this is your book! Fill your heart with his glory and then let your sermons open the sluicegate of your meditation. Remember that a reservoir can dispense only what has flowed into it.
If you love the gospel, this is your book! Preach it, model it, and encourage your people to spread it motivated not only on duty (evangelism is a duty) but also by compassion on people far from God.
If you love showing people the practical implications of a Christian worldview, this is your book! Expound and challenge the people to let the life of Christ determine every action and word.
F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).
Michael Bird, Colossians and Philemon (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009).
David W. Pao, Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).
Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.