Teaching Colossians In The Local Church

Jimmie L. Nelson  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 16 - Fall 1973

How does the pastor find time for the study required to teach Colossians? He will, only if the truth in the Colossian letter personally comes alive. The time factor is faced constantly by the busy pastor. The purpose of this article is to call attention to Colossians and to whet the appetite for an in-depth study of the book. Reading the epistle undergirded by personal conversations with God surely will result in an eagerness to explore this portion of Scripture. Enrichment from the comments of others, coupled with the expected illumination of the Holy Spirit, makes possible an exciting teaching-learning experience.

Dealing with an entire book demands discipline. The pay­off makes it worthwhile. Passages of scripture, often neglected, bring deepened insight into the gracious, effective dealings of God with man. The emphasis in Colossians on the preeminence of Christ in creation and in the creation of new men needs rediscovery in this generation.

A teaching environment hopefully is created in which the church member becomes excited about the possibility that God’s Word has something to do with his life now. Interest will result with the realization that the message of Colossians applies to everyday life. The teacher himself, well prepared both through intensive study of the Word and through communion with God, is enabled to convey the truth with a sense of excitement and authority. As the truth becomes flesh in the teacher’s life it has greater chance of becoming flesh in the pupil’s.

The options are many for teaching Colossians in the local church. The basic proposal is January Bible Study Week. Teaching Colossians on successive nights could be followed by a series of Sunday sermons. Resources discovered plus feedback from the participants provide a wealth of material for sermons. This would relieve the tension of “what to preach next Sunday?” and guarantee biblical sermons.

Other options include: a Wednesday evening series, a month of Sundays teaching and preaching from Colossians, a weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) teaching-preaching emphasis.


THE USE OF INTRODUCTORY MATERIALS[1]For a more complete introduction see G. Lacoste Munn’s article, Introduction to Colossians.

Incorporate the introductory materials in the study of the text. This material aids in visualizing the writer, the recipients, and the reason for writing. In teaching Colossians do not be­ come too enamored with the details of date, authorship, philosophical and cultural context, etc. These are means to an end-the illumination of the Scripture.

This does not mean that the introductory materials are irrelevant. The message of Colossians, understood in the light of its first century recipients, will provide a key to contemporary application. Master the historical details and succinctly state them in your own words.

Colossae was a small town. Though insignificant by the first century A.D., the city was marked by a significant group of people-“the saints and faithful brethren in Christ.” Paul writes to this small church some of the most amazing words concerning Christ found in the Scripture. Though he did not establish the church at Colossae, the apostle was greatly concerned about their continual spiritual growth.[2]Col. 2:1-3.

The church at Colossae came into being during Paul’s Ephesian ministry when “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”[3]Acts 19:10. Epaphras appears to be the one who established the churches in Colossae, Laodicrea, and Hierapolis.[4]Col. 1:7ff, 4:12ff. His report of the progress and problems facing the Colossian Christians caused Paul to write this letter.

In the study of Colossians one cannot escape confronting the Colossian heresy. Whatever the error may have been, it certainly involved belief that faith in Christ was not by itself sufficient to secure salvation. The Colossians were being confronted with the idea that certain practices were necessary to meet the demands or escape the attention of other divine beings. One of the phrases common in describing the Colossian error is “incipient gnosticism,” i.e. the gnosticism of the second century A.D. in embryonic form in Paul’s day.

Gnosticism was based upon the Greek view that matter is evil. This view confronted the Gentile congregations constantly. Not grounded in the Jewish heritage which includes the Old Testament divine declarations that creation was good, they were tempted to succumb to the popular view that creation was bad. On the premise that matter is evil two different ideas emerged. Antinomianism insisted that since the body was evil and the soul saved, the body could do as it pleased! Asceticism insisted upon the subjection of the physical appetites to legalistic rules.

A man’s view of Christ would also be affected if the gnostic ideas were accepted. Later gnostic groups propagated two different ideas about Christ. One stated that he only appeared to be human, that he was a phantom Christ who came in such a way that he could be seen and thus communicate with man. The other view separated Jesus from Christ. In this view Jesus was considered only a man upon whom the Christ came at his baptism and left at the cross thus leaving Jesus, the man, powerless.

The polemical ideas in Colossians indicate that practices were being suggested or demanded to meet the demands or escape the attention of other divine spirits or powers. In Colossians Paul provides the highest view of the person and work of Christ. He is supreme above all things. He is preeminent in creation and in the new creation.

Our day is confronted by demonology, astrology, ecstaticism, and human philosophies that have attracted thousands of people. Christianity is being constantly diluted by speculative thinkers and so-called spiritual “know-it-alls.” Ecstatic experience, whatever its source, becomes the final authority for many. What needs to be emphasized today is that experience of itself does not become truth. But valid experience results from truth. The Bible corroborates what the Spirit does.

The uninstructed Christian is fair game for every crazy ideology that comes along. It is important for the pastor to realize that his people are deriving their concept of Christianity from other sources than the church. The study of Colossians is for such a time as this. Christ needs to be seen anew in his supremacy in creation and in the new creation.



The outline is a result of intensive study. The temptation is to force a suggested outline on the Scripture. Outlining should be a digest of what the Scripture means to you. Through prayerful exegesis, examination of various interpretations and spiritual illumination the student of scripture gains a perspective of the message of the book. The outline provides an overview of the epistle and aids in placing text in context.

Having formulated the outline the teacher is ready for concentrated study of various passages and their application to present day life. The following is but one example of a workable outline of Colossians.


SALUTATION (Ch. 1:1-2)

The author, his authority, his associate (Ch. 1:1)
The Colossian recipients: described and greeted (Ch. 1:2)

    “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you”

    1. Prayer of Thanksgiving (Ch. 1:3-8)
      1. Reasons—“faith” and “love” (Ch. 1:4)
      2. Resource -“hope laid up for you in heaven” (Ch. 1:5a)
      3. Received Word-heard, received, having continual effect (Ch. l:5b-6)
      4. Reported by Epaphras (Ch. 1:7)
    2. Prayer of Intercession (Ch. 1:9-14)
      1. Full Knowledge of God’s Will (Ch. 1:9)
      2. Christ-pleasing Conduct ( Ch. 1:10)
      3. Reliance upon God’s Power (Ch. 1:11)
      4. Gratitude for Divine Qualification (Ch. 1:12-14)
    “that in everything he might be preeminent”

    1. As Revelator (Ch. 1:15a)
    2. As Creator (Ch. 1:15b-l7)
    3. As Controller of the Church (Ch. 1:18)
    4. As Reconciler (Ch. 1:19-23)
      1. Of All Things (Ch. 1:19-20)
      2. Of His People (Ch. 1:21-23)
    “Christ in you, the hope of glory”

    1. His Personal Joy in Fulfilling the Purpose (Ch. 1:24)
    2. His Personal Commission (Ch. 1:25)
    3. His Proclamation of God’s Mystery (Ch. 1:26-29)
    “to have all the riches of assured understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery”

    1. Christ-centered Knowledge (Ch. 2: 1-3)
    2. Steadfast Faith (Ch. 2:4-7)
    “you have come to fullness of life in him”

    1. Sufficiency of Christ, Himself, for Spiritual Fullness (Ch. 2:8-10)
    2. Deliverance Through Death and Resurrection (Ch. 2:11-15)
      1. Over “Flesh” (Ch. 2: 11-12)
      2. Over Guilt and Dominion of Sin (Ch. 2:13-15)
    3. Consequences of Deliverance (Chs. 2:16-3:4)
      1. Through Death (Ch. 2: 16-23)
        1. Freedom in Relation to Food and Festivals (Ch. 2:16-17)
        2. Freedom to Grow (Ch. 2: 19)
        3. Freedom in Relation to Asceticism and Angel Worship (Ch. 2: 18-23)
      2. Through Resurrection (Ch. 3:1-4)
        1. Life from a Different Perspective (Ch. 3: 1-3)
        2. Life with a Future (Ch. 3:4)

    1. By Rejecting Behavior of the Old Life (Ch. 3:5-11)
    2. By Exhibiting the New Nature (Ch. 3:12-17)
    3. In Human Relationships (Ch. 3:18-4:1)
    4. Summary Exhortations (Ch. 4:2-6)

GREETINGS (Ch. 4:7-17)



Since the purpose of this article is to stir the reader to desire to teach, the following comments are only suggestive. Much more could be said as a result of intensive study.

The Salutation 1:1-2

Spiritual discernment aided by imagination provides insight into the relevance of Scripture. Does “this word” have anything to do with everyday living? The use of the vernacular may aid in application of the apostle’s words. For example, the first two verses say “hello” in a special kind of way to a certain kind of folks from an unusual man.

The introductory material becomes a resource for ideas and application. Since Colossae was a small town with a small church certain ideas emerge.

Consider the importance of the church, regardless of size. No matter how struggling or how immature or how threatened, the church is a body of which Christ is the head. When the church begins to realize its function and its resource in Christ (in whom all fullness dwells), “business as usual” will cease.

Consider the idea that Paul communicated to a people who needed to hear what he said. Did they understand? Did Paul expect them to understand? If so, why is the message so difficult for us to comprehend? The Colossian saints would not be more theologically trained than the average present day congregation. Could it be that they understood more easily because they were not hampered by tradition or denominational orthodoxy? They had responded to the personal Christ who had invaded their lives by His spirit. Christ had become savior, sustainer and sovereign.

The Christological Passage 1:15-23

Bombarded by gospel tunes that enhance personal experience rather than exalting Christ and challenged by “superstar” theology, the church must reaffirm the preeminence of Christ in all things. The study and comprehension of the Christological passage will serve as a needed corrective to sloppy thinking.

As Revelator Christ is the visible presence (image) of God. As Lord of creation he is before all things, has created all things and nothing created finds purpose apart from Him! According to gnostics the creation was cut off from close relationship with God. A series of angels, or aeons, or powers were descending intermediaries making it ultimately impossible for man to know about spiritual things. To be “in the know” is to be gnostic and usually results in a “know it all.” Paul emphasizes that whatever exists Christ created, and whatever happens to what exists is under Christ’s dominion.

Christ is also the one mediator in whom all the fullness (pleroma) of God dwells. Not only is the fullness exhibited as Creator but also as Reconciler. By the blood of His cross peace is made.

There is no spiritual fuzziness in regard to God’s actions in Christ. God acted visibly in bringing about victory for man. The cross and the resurrection were earth events making plain God’s dealings through Christ. The victory was no speculative idea that took place in some heavenly region where the principalities and powers have their abode. God’s victory is for man and it is where man is that the victory was won.

And Christ is head of the church. Paul in earlier writings had described the church as the body of Christ.[5]1 Cor. 12:27, Rom. 7:5. This vital truth gripping a group of believers will revolutionize their church. Christ is the controller directing and energizing the church. The church is His body, His instrument for channeling His redemptive purpose throughout the world.

The “mystery” 1:26-27

“A mystery is a truth man cannot know by his natural powers, so if it is known it must be revealed.”[6]A. S. Peake, “The Epistle to the Colossians,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956) Vol. III, p. 516. The mystery is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” This is the essence of the Christian faith. Christ in you equals Christian. A Christian is one in whom Christ dwells.

A Christian is enabled to live the Christian life by union with Christ. A man is not able to copy the life of Christ any more than he is able to keep the law. However, the indwelling Christ who keeps the law will live His life in the believer. He labors, not by natural powers but “according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.”[7]Col. 1:29.

The Christian life is supernatural from beginning to end. Has the “supernatural” happened to the people you teach?

Incorporation, in the Christian sense, means no mere imitation or following of Christ, still less mere enrolling as a member of a society: it is membership in a vividly organic sense—it means becoming the living tissues of a living organism.[8]C. F. D. Moule, “The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon,” The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (Cambridge: The University Press, 1962), pp. 8-9.

“Fullness of life in him” 2:8-10

The desire to experience “spiritual filling” characterizes the spiritual renewal movements. The Holy Spirit as a holy wind has blown down man-made barriers and resurrected dry bones dusted down by sterile orthodoxy and human effort.

The danger during spiritual renewal is ignorance of God’s word and its use as a corrective as well as the interpreter of spiritual experience.

The Colossians were being confronted with a “Christ-plus” heresy. Theories about God and human traditions based upon the “elemental spirits” or “rudiments” of the world were being thrust upon the believers as necessary for spiritual fullness.

One who shared fully in the divine nature had become flesh and tabernacled among men. Not only so, but Christians by their union with Him shared His very life. If the fullness of deity resided in Him, His fullness was imparted to them.[9]F. F. Bruce, “Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 232-233.

“Buried with him in baptism” 2:11-12

Baptism is the outward sign of the inward personal experience of death, burial, and resurrection with Christ.

Our “body of flesh,” the principle of sin-action that operates through us, has been dealt a death-blow. In the light of Christ in us the “flesh” can never be the same. We have been raised to life—His life in our life.[10]The contrast between the old man and the new man in Col. 3:9-11 indicates also the baptism motif.

Death and Resurrection[11]Cf. Robert C. Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ (Berlin: V. A. Topelmann, 1967) for discussion of Pauline theology of dying with Christ, rising with Christ in the life of the believer. 2:20-3:4

Paul applies the death-resurrection experiences to practical everyday living as he degrades the gnostic approach. The rules of men based upon a false premise (i.e., matter is evil) are not binding upon the Christian. Ascetic practices do not gain victory over sin. Christ has already won that victory.

Legalistic regulations as additional requirements to gain spiritual merit have no value. In fact, the result of such self-effort is self-righteousness. “Will-worship”[12]Col 2:23. Cf. Bruce, op. cit., p. 255. “rigor of devotion: in RSV. is phony religion.

“Overregulation intensifies the evil. No regulation leads to license and ruin from self-indulgence. The golden mean . . . is found in the Lordship of Christ over one’s life.”[13]A. T. Robertson, Paul and the Intellectuals (Nashville: Broadman, 1959) p. 95.

“Raised with Christ”[14]Col. 3:1. is the conversion experience. Christ’s nature has become a part of the Christian. Participation in the resurrection life is not automatic or mechanical. The Christian makes conscious choices that permit Christ to be in control.

Resurrection implies death has taken place. The Christian’s life can never be the same as when spiritually dead. Resurrection is also a divine operation. The same power which raised Christ accomplishes our resurrection.[15]Cf. Eph. 1:18-20.

“therefore” 3:5ff

The Christian life is a way of life affecting all relationships. The message Christians need to hear is not “What is the Gospel?” but “How does the Gospel work?” Paul always applies the truth, examined and explained, to the Christian’s daily walk.

Because of the nature of the Christian life (Christ in you) the “old man” and his vices are to be continually put to death. (Get lost old man, the new man has arrived!) The “new man” puts on those qualities that are so evident in the life of Christ. This continual process of “being renewed” begins to make visible that “image” or presence of Christ in the Christian’s life.


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