Many commentators think that behind Paul’s letter to the Colossians lies the threat from an incipient Gnosticism, which in its early stages was ‘not so much a movement as a mood’ (Perrin). Paul’s recognising the peril, ‘writes this now famous letter with is affectionate warnings, its clear teaching, its pointed diagnoses, and above all its sustained appeal for loyalty to the truth that had first won the Colossians’ allegiance.’ (Lucas)

Lucas notes the following hints within the letter:-

1. The new teachers offered a spiritual fullness not previously experienced, Col 2:10. ‘What you have is fine so far as it goes.’ they would have argued, ‘but you still have something missing, and we can provide that and turn you into real Christians.’

Neill (quoted by Lucas) comments that in the missionary field Roman Catholics have often come in and set themselves to ‘complete’ the imperfect Christianity of the Protestant converts.  Or Pentecostal groups have come in and assured converts that unless they speak with tongues, they can have no assurance that they have received the Holy Spirit. Or Anglicans have come in and conveyed ‘the blessings of episcopacy to those who thought that they were getting on very nicely without them.’

2. The new teachers spoke of a new spiritual freedom which those who followed them would enjoy. This may have been some kind of deliverance ministry. But Paul reminds his readers that they have already experienced deliverance in Christ, Col 1:13; 2:15. Indeed, the promised ‘deliverance’ would turn out to be a new kind of slavery, Col 2:8,18,20ff.

3. The new teachers seemed to have claimed some power over the forces of evil. But Paul teaches that it is Christ who has full authority over such powers, and all who are in him share in his triumph, Col 2:10,15.

4. The new teachers were known for their asceticism (including fasting). But such teaching ‘has a poor record in combating self-indulgence, not least in terms of religious vanity, Col 2:18,23 cf Col 3:5-8).’ (Lucas)

5. The new teachers offered initiation into deeper knowledge of God. See Col 2:8-15. See also Col 1:9-14, where Paul distinguishes between what is already ours in Christ, and what we must yet seek.

6. The new teachers claimed superiority over ordinary believers. But their claims to be extraordinarily advanced were, to Paul, ‘merely steps back into the shadows Col 2:16-17. In in 2 Cor, Paul is deeply concerned lest the confidence of believers be undermined by those ‘super-apostles’ who claimed a more complete initiation into the secrets of God.

7. The new teachers were divisive in their influence. Accordingly, the letter makes strong appeals for unity, Col 2:1-5 3:9-17.

The church in Colosse

a) was founded at the same time as those at Ephesus and Hierapolis (AD 52-55; see Acts 19);

b) Paul seems not to have evangelised there personally;

c) Paul, now in prison, receives news from Epaphras;

d) the Colossian heresy had philosophical, ritualistic, and superstitious aspects;

e) key thought – the pre-eminence of Christ, Col 1:18.

Ephesians and Colossians Compared

Though written at approximately the same time and reflecting similar themes, the books of Ephesians and Colossians have their own distinctive emphases. If the book of Ephesians can be labeled the epistle portraying the “Church of Christ,” then the focus of Colossians must surely be the “Christ of the Church.”

Ephesians Colossians
Jesus Christ: Lord of the church Jesus Christ: Lord of the cosmos
Emphasis on the church as a body of Christ Emphasis on Christ as the Head of the cosmos and the church(but also affirms Christ as Head of the church)
Less personal and probably a circular epistle More personal and local-church-oriented
Addresses the errors of false teaching less directly Speaks to the errors of false doctrine directly
(heresy is not yet a major danger) (heresy is more threatening)
Common themes treated extensively Common themes treated briefly

(Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts, Revised)