Social Setting– During this time Colossae is in a state of decline due to the road for trade being moved north towards places like Laodicea. So the church was started during a time of economic struggle and decline. Different Greek philosophies and lifestyles permeated the city. The Hellenistic philosophies such as Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Platonic and Aristotelian thought were pervasive among the intelligencia. Epicureanism de-emphasized the divine and taught that one should gain as much pleasure in life as possible; but it had to be moderate pleasures, specifically intellectual ones. Overindulgence in sex and food can cause less overall satisfaction and, therefore, more misery Stoicism endeavored to break free from human passions (suffering, anguish, etc.) using reason and logic. They thought that human evil and unhappiness was caused by ignorance, not by separation from an almighty God. Platonic thought emphasized mind over matter; that which transcends the physical is better or greater than that which is physical and worldly. Mystery religions had communities of people worshipping different gods (such as god of fertility or god of the moon), indulging in alcohol and sex to get the experience of the divine. The Jewish community there used the Hebrew Scriptures to teach about and worship Yahweh, but there was a mystical teaching there emphasizing worship of angels as well. The church was full of people who had left these lifestyles, but the temptation to return was great. The church, living in a hostile world, can do much to transform culture, but what if the sinful world acts as a magnet threatening to bring God’s children out of the church and back into it’s philosophies and lifestyles?
Geographical Setting- Paul was likely in Rome when he wrote this letter. He was writing to the church in Colossae, which is located in Asia Minor, north of the Mediterranean Sea and east of Ephesus where Paul ministered for three years. It was on the south side of the Meander river.
Date- Colossians was likely written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28), which would place the letter at about the early A.D. 60’s, specifically A.D. 62.
Literary & Historical- Colossae was a significant city in Asia Minor at around the fifth century B.C., but was refered to as a little city by the first century B.C. The church seems to have gotten its start during Paul’s three year ministry in Ephesus in Acts 19 (A.D. 52-55). A Colossian named Epaphras must have heard Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel in Ephesus and responded to it there. He then returned to his home city and started the church. Since the church’s start there had been three major cultural stumbling blocks tempting the members of the church to leave: the intellectual group (philosophy, stoicism, platonism, etc.), the mystery religions (emphasized experience with the divine, indulgence), and behaviorism (Jewish law). The specific teaching that may have been espoused in the church and caused Epaphras such worry was a superstitious Jewish and pagan belief that emphasized calling on angels to protect from evil spirits and abstinence from certain foods and events. Epaphras brings this news to Paul, who writes an epistle to the church to be read out loud to the congregation.
Key Terms- This is the only time in the Bible that the word “philosophy” is used. It comes from two Greek words: philein, which means “to love,” and sophia, which means “wisdom.” So etymologically philosophy means “lover of wisdom.” In modern times we use the word philosophy to designate a specific academic discipline, but it was used much more broadly back in antiquity. It can be seen as the endeavor to seek knowledge and wisdom, the teachings of a specific person or group, or as ones view of the world. Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century, called the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees philosophies. Magicians could even be called philosophers. This makes it clear that when Paul was warning the Colossians not to be taken captive by “philosophy,” he meant the ungodly teachings being taught by a certain faction or person in the church, not the discipline of philosophy.