Lesson 1 - Introduction

Lesson 1 - Introduction A Study of Paul’s Imprisonment Letters Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians Lesson 1 - Introduction General Introduction to the Prison Epistles Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, together with Ephesians, form a group of the apostle Paul’s epistles collectively designated as the “prison epistles” or “captivity letters.” Paul writes all four epistles while in prison. He speaks of his bonds and his unique calling as the Lord’s “ambassador in chains” (Ephesians 6:20). These common expressions, the similarity of the various personal remarks the apostle makes in all four epistles, and the fact that three of the four were delivered to their destinations by one man, Tychicus, lead us to the conclusion that all four of these letters were written during the same period of confinement. Paul was imprisoned in Rome. He was awaiting the hearing of his appeal to the emperor and then the emperor’s verdict that would follow. This was probably a period of about two years, from A.D. 61 to 63. This particular imprisonment is sometimes referred to as Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. He was also imprisoned in Rome a second time, just before his death. In Acts chapters 21 to 27, Saint Luke tells in great detail how it happened that Paul appealed to the emperor and consequently journeyed to Rome for the hearing. Because these events have a direct bearing on all three epistles, it is worthwhile to review some of them here. During the apostle’s mission journeys, Jews in various places resisted and rejected the gospel message. On occasion this resistance became violent. Many of these unbelieving Jews brought false reports back to Jerusalem concerning Paul and his gospel proclamation. They stirred up the resentment of their fellow Jews by accusing Paul of teaching the Jews to turn away from Moses and encouraging them not to circumcise their children or live according to Jewish customs. This smoldering Jewish resentment was fanned into flame when Paul returned to Jerusalem after his third mission journey and appeared in the temple. There a group of Asian Jews incited a riot by publicly accusing Paul of forsaking the Law of Moses and of polluting the temple by bringing a Gentile into the area of the temple that was reserved exclusively for Jews. The charges were false, but they were enough to arouse the whole anti-Christian element in Jerusalem. Paul would doubtless have been stoned to death on the spot had the Roman garrison commander not intervened and brought a detachment of soldiers to stem the murderous fury of the mob. When an attempt by the apostle to defend himself before his Jewish accusers resulted in another near riot, the commander detained Paul. Hoping to have the charges against the apostle clarified, he called an informal meeting of the Jewish council (Sanhedrin), but that meeting also degenerated into a shouting match. Meanwhile, Paul assured humane treatment for himself by informing the commander that he was a Roman citizen. When a plot on the apostle’s life was discovered, the commander decided to have Paul removed to the seat of the imperial government at Caesarea. With his arrival at Caesarea, Paul began an almost five-year period of unjust and unwarranted captivity, hearings, and appeals. It must have been a difficult and discouraging time for the apostle, but Paul did not lose heart. He continued to glorify Christ in his chains and even by means of them. It was during these years that the apostle would optimistically write, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). The first two years of Paul’s imprisonment took place in Caesarea under the weak but vicious procurator Felix. Shortly after the apostle’s arrival in Caesarea, his enemies appeared. They accused him of being a “troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world … and even [trying] to desecrate the temple” (Acts 24:5, 6), but Paul eloquently defended himself against the charges. Felix, however, did not release Paul, probably because he feared the Jews. He also hoped for a bribe from the apostle. When Festus replaced Felix as governor, the Jewish leaders renewed their accusations against Paul. Again, no charges worthy of imprisonment could be proven, but Festus also wanted to maintain the favor of the Jews. So he suggested that Paul go to Jerusalem and stand trial there. By this time Paul was convinced that he could never receive a fair trial in either Jerusalem or Caesarea. So Paul exercised the right that every Roman citizen had and appealed his case directly to the emperor, secure in the Lord’s assurance that he would testify about Jesus also in Rome. Festus, though somewhat unwilling, granted the appeal. And events were set in motion that brought the apostle to Rome. Acts chapters 27 and 28 describe Paul’s long and perilous journey to Rome. At Rome, the appeal process dragged on for over two years. All the while, Paul was considered a prisoner. The terms of his imprisonment, however, were quite lenient. Though he was continually fastened to a soldier/guard with a light chain, the apostle was permitted to carry on a fairly normal schedule of activity. He lived in his own rented dwelling in Rome. He received his friends and coworkers—including Timothy, Tychicus, Luke, Epaphroditus, and others—without hindrance and sent them on various errands to extend his ministry. In general, he continued to proclaim the gospel joyfully and vigorously to all with whom he came in contact. The preaching and the attitude of the Lord’s “ambassador in chains” encouraged the Christians who were already at Rome and resulted in the conversion of members of the Praetorian Guard and members of Caesar’s household. At the conclusion of the book of Acts, we find Paul preaching and teaching the gospel quite openly in Rome. How wonderfully the Lord had fulfilled his promise that Paul would testify about him in the foremost city of the first-century world! We don’t know why Paul’s hearing was delayed so long in Rome. No doubt the Roman justice system, like our own, was somewhat cumbersome. Perhaps the apostle’s opponents despaired of obtaining his condemnation and resorted to delaying tactics, as desperate lawyers often do today. Or perhaps the whole matter of the free teaching of a foreign religion by a Roman citizen had to be thoroughly investigated by the emperor’s advisors. In his epistle to the Philippians, which we take to be the last of these four captivity epistles, the apostle informs us that his first hearing had taken place and had gone well. Though he does not foolishly ignore the possibility that the emperor might still rule against him, Paul is optimistic that he will be acquitted and set free. Based on what the apostle says in Philippians, most Bible scholars assume that Paul was set free and continued to work until he was imprisoned again in the general persecution of Christians that took place under Emperor Nero in A.D. 65/66. During this second imprisonment, Paul wrote 2 Timothy, which is clearly the last testimony of a man facing his earthly end. Paul did not lose heart during his years as a prisoner, for he realized that his imprisonment, with all its attendant frustrations and inconveniences, was an essential and fruitful part of his ministry for Christ. In the captivity letters the apostle speaks of his own sufferings as an extension of Christ’s sufferings, borne for the sake of Christ’s church. He regarded his hearing before the imperial court as an opportunity to witness for the defense and confirmation of the gospel. Yes, his sufferings remained sufferings, and he felt them keenly, but Paul knew that even these sufferings were part of the grace bestowed upon him in his ministry. His immediate purpose in being in Rome was to appeal to Caesar, but his higher objective was to continue to proclaim the gospel. This he did, to the Jews and to the Gentiles. Ever hopeful and energetic, he “boldly and without hindrance … preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31). The most far-reaching fruits of the apostle’s ministry in chains are his captivity letters. From the inspired pen of the Lord’s captive ambassador, the church has received a wonderful proclamation of the all-embracing significance of Christ (Colossians), a testimony of how the gospel can transfigure even the darkest aspects of human life (Philemon), a remarkable portrait of the nature of the church (Ephesians), and a letter whose dominant note of hope and joy even in the midst of discouragement and suffering (Philippians) has kept the church of every age optimistic and hopeful. Philippians is probably the last of Paul’s captivity letters. When Paul wrote Colossians and Philemon, Luke and Aristarchus were still with him. When Philippians was written, both had been sent out on apostolic missions. Philippians also contains the latest information we have on the progress of Paul’s appeal and implies that the final verdict would be expected at any time. We conclude, therefore, that all four of the prison epistles were written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome during the years A.D. 61–63. Colossians was probably written first, followed by Philemon, Ephesians and, finally, Philippians. The church has always accepted these letters as authentic messages from the hand of the apostle Paul, the Lord’s inspired “ambassador in chains.” (We will study the imprisonment letters in the order in which Paul wrote them.) Occasion for the Writing and Delivery of the Imprisonment Letters We have previously noted that while under house arrest in Rome awaiting trial, Paul was able to carry on a limited gospel ministry. People came to him for counsel and advice, and he was able to respond in person or by letter. A scenario such as the following seems to conform to what we learn from Scripture regarding the circumstances that surround the writing of Ephesians. Word has reached Paul of a dangerous heresy besetting another congregation in Asia Minor, the congregation in the city of Colosse. The Colossians are being urged to heed certain spiritual forces and powers that were supposedly helpful to those who revered them and hurtful to those who did not regard them properly. Paul counters this false teaching with a ringing defense of the surpassing greatness of Christ, in whom “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell” (Colossians 1:19). If the Colossians have Christ, they need nothing else! Hence, the letter to the Colossians extols Christ as the incomparably great and glorious head of the church. Lacking a postal system such as we take for granted, the letter would have to be hand delivered. It was decided that a trusted colleague by the name of Tychicus would carry it to Colosse. Another matter is weighing on Paul’s mind, however. During his stay in Rome, he came in contact with a runaway slave, Onesimus. This slave had deserted his Christian master, a certain Philemon, who apparently was a member of the congregation in Colosse. Onesimus has since repented of his former infidelity and become Christian. Moreover, he has become a valuable “runner” for the grounded apostle. Paul would like to keep his services but feels obligated to return Onesimus to his master (Philemon 13, 14). Hence Paul writes a second letter for Tychicus to carry. This one is to Philemon, urging him to show kindly treatment to Onesimus, whom Paul is sending back to Colosse in the company of Tychicus (Colossians 4:7, 9). In traveling to the interior of Asia Minor, the logical route for Tychicus and Onesimus to follow would take them through the port city of Ephesus. Paul sees an opportunity to send a letter also to his beloved Ephesians. Hence he writes the letter to the Ephesians, of which Tychicus is also the bearer (Ephesians 6:21). Introduction to Colossians THE CITY OF COLOSSAE A. Originally the city of Colossae was part of the kingdom of Pergamum within Phrygia. In 133 B.C. it was given to the senate of Rome. B. Colossae was a large commercial center before Paul’s day (cf. Heroditus’ Histories VII:30 and Xenophon Anabasis 1:2:6).

  1. The valley in which Colossae was located was the ancient Mediterranean world’s leading producer of wool, especially black wool, and dyed wool, purple and scarlet. The volcanic soil produced excellent pasture land and the chalky water aided the dyeing process (Strabo, 13:4:14).
  2. Volcanic activity (Strabo, 12:8:6) caused the city to be destroyed several times in its history; the latest time being A.D. 60 (Tacitus) or A.D. 64 (Eusebius). C. Colossae was located on the Lycus River, a tributary of the Maeander River, which ran by Ephesus, 100 miles downstream. In this one valley were located Hierapolis (6 miles away) and Laodicea (10 miles away) (cf. 1:2; 2:1; 4:13, 15–16). D. After the Romans built their major east-west highway, Via Ignatia , which bypassed Colossae, it dwindled to almost nothing (Strabo). This was similar to what happened to Petra in the Trans-Jordan area of Palestine. E. The city was made up mostly of Gentiles (Phyrgians and Greek settlers), but there were numerous Jews also. Josephus tells us that Antiochus III (223–187 B.C.) transported 2,000 Jews from Babylon to Colossae. Records show that by A.D. 76, 11,000 Jewish males lived in the district of which Colossae was the capital. RECIPIENTS AND OCCASION A. The church was apparently started by Epaphras (cf. 1:7, 8; 2:1; 4:12–13), who was probably converted by Paul at Ephesus (cf. Col. 1:7–8 and compare 2:1). It was mostly made up of Gentiles (cf. 1:21; 3:7). Epaphras came to Paul in prison to report a problem with false teachers who taught a mixture of Christianity with Greek philosophy called gnosticism (2:8) and Jewish legalism (cf. Jewish elements, 2:11, 16, 17: 3:11; angel worship, 1:16; 2:15, 18 and asceticism 2:20–23). There was a very large Jewish community in Colossae which had become very Hellenistic. The essence of the problem centered around the person and work of Christ. The gnostics denied that Jesus was fully man but affirmed that He was fully divine because of their eternal antagonistic dualism between matter and spirit. They would affirm His Deity but deny His humanity. They also denied His mediatorial preeminence. For them there were many angelic levels ( eons ) between a good high god and humanity; Jesus, even though the highest, was only one of the gods. They also tended to be intellectually exclusive (cf. 3:11, 14, 16, 17) and emphasized a special exclusive secret knowledge (cf. 2:15, 18, 19) as the path to God instead of Jesus’ atoning, vicarious sacrifice and mankind’s repentant faith response to His free offer of forgiveness. B. Because of this theological, philosophical atmosphere, the book of Colossians emphasizes
  3. The uniqueness of the person of Christ and His finished work of salvation.
  4. The cosmological ownership, reign and significance of Jesus of Nazareth - His birth, His teachings, His life, His death, His resurrection and His ascension! He is Lord of all! PURPOSE OF THE LETTER Paul’s purpose was to refute the Colossian heresy. To accomplish this goal, he exalted Christ as the very image of God (1:15), the Creator (1:16), the preexistent sustainer of all things (1:17), the head of the church (1:18), the first to be resurrected (1:18), the fullness of deity in bodily form (1:19, 2:9) and the reconciler (1:20–22). Thus, Christ was completely adequate. Believers “have been given fullness in Christ” (2:10). The Colossian heresy was completely theologically inadequate to provide spiritual salvation. It was a hollow and deceptive philosophy (2:8), lacking any ability to restrain the old sinful nature (2:23). A recurring theme in Colossians is the complete adequacy of Christ as contrasted with the emptiness of mere human philosophy. This adequacy is expressed in the cosmic Lordship of Jesus. He is owner, creator and sovereign over all things, visible and invisible (cf. 1:15–18). INFORMATION ON GNOSTICISM A. Most of our knowledge of this heresy comes from the gnostic writings of the second century. However, the incipient ideas were present in the first century (Dead Sea Scrolls). B. The problem at Colossae was a hybrid of Christianity, incipient gnosticism, and legalistic Judaism. C. Some stated tenets of Valentinian and Cerinthian Gnosticism of the second century
  5. Matter and spirit were co-eternal (an ontological dualism). Matter is evil, spirit is good. God, who is spirit, cannot be directly involved with molding evil matter.
  6. There are emanations ( eons or angelic levels) between God and matter. The last or lowest one was YHWH of the Old Testament who formed the universe (kosmos).
  7. Jesus was an emanation like YHWH but higher on the scale, closer to the true God. Some put Him as the highest but still less than God and certainly not incarnate deity, (cf. John 1:14). Since matter is evil, Jesus could not have a human body and still be divine. He just appeared human, but was really a spirit (cf. I John 1:1–3; 4:1–6).
  8. Salvation was obtained through faith in Jesus plus special knowledge, which is only known by special persons. Knowledge (passwords) was needed to pass through heavenly spheres. Jewish legalism was also required to reach God. D. The gnostic false teachers advocated two opposite ethical systems:
  9. For some, lifestyle was totally unrelated to salvation. For them, salvation and spirituality were encapsulated into secret knowledge (passwords) through the angelic spheres ( eons ).
  10. For others, lifestyle was crucial to salvation. In this book, the false teachers emphasized an ascetic lifestyle as an evidence of true spirituality (cf. 2:16–23). E. A good reference book is The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas, published by Beacon Press. Questions for Review:
  11. Explain how Paul ended up becoming a prisoner in Rome.
  12. What were the conditions under which Paul was imprisoned in Rome, and how did those conditions help in the spreading of the gospel?
  13. Explain why Tychicus ended up delivering three letters together at about the same time.
  14. What was Paul’s purpose in writing the letter to the Colossians?
  15. What was Gnosticism, and how did it threaten early Christianity?
  16. Give examples which show that Christians today have the same needs that the Christians in first-century Colossae had.