If one thinks that Paul wrote the other Prison Epistles, most agree that Colossians was authored by the Apostle Paul while in prison likely in Rome sometime before AD 61 when Colossae and the Colossian church were ravaged by an earthquake. Interestingly, Paul had never been to Colossae when he wrote this letter. Epaphras, who likely started the church in Colossae, had just come to Paul in Rome and reported on the progress of the church and its challenges (1:8). Paul writes this letter in response as a form of encouragement.
Much of the background of Colossians revolves around a false teaching in the church or some to come their way that is often called the Colossian Heresy. The Colossian Christians are or will be tempted to leave the simple gospel of grace through Christ alone for a set of teachings that emphasize asceticism (2:16, 21), everyday wisdom (2:8, 23), veneration of angels (2:18), and the insufficiency of Christ to fulfill the fundamental needs of life (1:15-20; 2:9). Over 45 different theories have been given for who exactly these false teachers were in Colossae. These theories usually include bits of Judaism, Gnosticism, Greco-Roman philosophy, and pagan religions from that area mixed together with Christianity.
This is the first time we have come this year to Gnosticism so an explanation is in order, especially as many who study Colossians believe the heresy was an early version of Gnosticism mixed with Judaism. We know that by the second century AD there was a Christian philosophy in place in many churches that accepted a dualistic worldview. A Gnostic thought the world was composed of two parts: the evil and degrading physical layer of life, and the pure and edifying spiritual aspects of life. A human, for instance, was a good spiritual being trapped in an evil prison of flesh. Sin comes as we follow our physical desires, and redemption can be found by listening and developing our spiritual self. (You may be thinking to yourself at this point, “Hey, I know Christians who believe that today!” Yes, there is a dualistic Christian worldview that still exists today, but I would question whether it is biblical. Is God not the Creator and Redeemer of all we are?) Consider how Gnosticism would affect beliefs and ethics. They did not believe that Jesus was physical. Jesus did not die a physical death on a cross, it only seemed that way. Our greatest mission is to escape this physical world, not redeem it. There were also two opposing views on how to deal with this physical body we live in: 1) deny your flesh and beat it into submission to your superior spiritual willpower, and 2) indulge your flesh and satisfy your physical desires wantonly showing that you have the spiritual strength within your pure soul to wallow in the mire of life and not be affected adversely by your physical behaviors. If an early form of Gnosticism was present in Colossae, the details of the letter suggest it was of the ascetic variety.
Personally, I don’t think we can downplay the fact that the main threat to the early Christians in Asia Minor at this time were Christian and non-Christian versions of Judaism. Note that circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, holy days, and food laws — all hallmarks of Judaism — are mentioned often in Colossians. In my opinion, the likeliest explanation for the Colossian Heresy is that the young Gentile Christians of Colossae were being be swayed away from the gospel of grace alone in Christ by a legalistic version of Jewish Gnosticism that emphasized law observance, physical asceticism, and the belief that the work of Jesus was not enough to save people.
In this letter, we will see Paul warn the Colossian Christians that there is nothing fulfilling or lasting in this “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2:8) because true fullness, power, wisdom and life are found in Christ (2:3, 9-10; 3:4). His desire is that “you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (4:12).