It would be hard to improve on the hundred and forty year old introduction
to this Epistle by Bishop Alfred Barry (later a Bishop and then Primate
of Australia) in the Ellicott Bible Commentary series. This is a shortened
and slightly edited version.
The only major amendment we have suggested is to place the Epistle to the Corinthians during a previous imprisonment in
Ephesus (see 1 Corinthians 15:32, 2 Corinthians 1:8-10) rather than in Rome. At that time Paul was thrown to the lions and was miraculously delivered (2 Timothy 4:16-17).
Introduction to The Epistle of Paul to the Colossians by Bishop Alfred Barry in The Bible Commentary for English Readers edited by Bishop Charles John Ellicott, London, Paris, New York & Melbourne: Cassell & Company, 1861. (The text by Alfred Barry has been shortened and edited for this appendix by Robert Brow).
I The Time, Place, and Occasion of Writing
There are in this Epistle indications of the time and place of writing similar to those in the Epistles to the Ephesians and Philippians. It is written in prison (4:18) and designates Aristarchus as his "fellow prisoner" (4:10). Like the Epistle to the Ephesians, it is sent by Tychicus with precisely the same official commendation of him as in that Epistle (4:7,8, compare Ephesians 6:21); but with him is joined Onesimus, the Colossian slave, the bearer of the Epistle to Philemon. Five of the persons named in the concluding salutation (4:7-14) are also named in the Epistle to Philemon (23, 24); two of them, Aristarchus and St. Luke, are known to have accompanied the Apostle on his voyage, as a captive, to Rome (Acts 27:2); and another, Tychicus, to have been his companion on the journey to Jerusalem, which preceded the beginning of the captivity at Caesarea (Acts 20:4).
A direction is given to forward this Epistle to Laodicea, and to obtain and read a letter sent to Laodicea (4:16), which is, in all probability, our Epistle to the Ephesians. All these indications point to one conclusion - not only that the Epistle is one of the Epistles of the Roman captivity (about AD 61-63), but that it is a twin Epistle with the Epistle to the Ephesians, sent at the same time and by the same hand, and designed to be interchanged with it in the churches of Colossae and Laodicea.
The occasion of writing seems to have been a visit to the Apostle from Epaphras, the first preacher of the gospel at Colossae, and the profound anxiety caused both to him and to St. Paul (2:1, 4:12-13) by the news he brought of the rise among the Colossians of a peculiar form of error, half Jewish, half Gnostic which threatened to beguile them into certain curious mazes of speculation as to the Godhead and the outgrowth of various emanations from it.
II. The Church to which it is addressed
The Church of Colossae, unlike the churches of Ephesus and Philippi, finds no record in the Acts of the Apostles; for although this city if not very far from the city of Ephesus, we gather it was not one of the churches founded or previously visited by St. Paul personally (Colossians 2:1). The Colossians heard the gospel from Epaphras, a fellows servant of Paul (1:7), who was one of them and had spiritual responsibility for them and the neighbouring churches of Laodicea and Hierapolis (4:12-13). We can, therefore, hardly be wrong in referring the conversion of the Colossians to the time of St. Paul's three years' stay at Ephesus, during which we are expressly told that "all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks (Acts 19:10). We find also that St. Paul had intimate personal acquaintance, and what he calls "partnership," with Philemon (Philemon 17), apparently a leading member of the Church at Colossae.
Colossae lay in the valley of the Lycus, a tributary of the Maeander, near Laodicea, and Hierapolis. These two cities stand face to face, about six miles from each other on opposite sides of the valley. Ten or twelve miles further up, on the river Lycus itself, lies Colossae. Any one approaching it from Ephesus, or from the sea-coast, would pass by Laodicea. The three cities thus form a group, so that they might naturally receive the gospel at the same time, and the Christian communities in them might easily be under the same charge.
When this Epistle was written Colossae was of far less note than the wealthy Laodicea, the metropolis of the district (Revelation 3:14).