Paul wrote the letter of Colossians to a church founded by one of his co-workers, Epaphras.
By the first century, the city of Colossae could only be described as a “small town” by Strabo, (Geography, 7.8.13.) Little is known about the town in this period other than it was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 60/61. The cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis are quickly rebuilt; Laodicea can even be described as “rich” when the book of Revelation is written thirty years later. Colossae never recovered from this disaster. Unfortunately, the ancient site of Colossae has not yet been excavated so little is known about the city in the first century.
The church at Colossae was founded by Epaphras (Ἐπαφρᾶς, pronounced “e-paf-ras”), a disciple of Paul from Ephesus (cf. 1:7, 4:12). Paul calls him a “faithful minister” (1:7). The name is short for Epaphroditus (Ἐπαφρόδιτος), a name common in the first century meaning “lovely, fascinating, charming” (LSJ). It is also the name of the servant who delivered a gift to Paul from Philippi) (Phil 2:25 and 4:13; Philemon 23). An inscription was found in Colossae mentioning a T. Asinius Epaphroditus, although it is unlikely this is the biblical Epaphras (F. M. Gillman, ABD 2:533).
Epaphras was from Colossae (4:12) and may be an evangelist in the Lycus valley. The cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis both had thriving churches in the first century (4:12, Rev 3:14-22). Paul tells the church that Epaphras has reported their faith to Paul, and in 4:12 Paul describes himself as “wrestling in prayer” on behalf of the church while he is working hard in other churches. The Colossian believers learned from Epaphras, who learned from Paul.
The verb μανθάνω is associated with “systematic instruction” rather than a brief outline (BDAG). Perhaps Paul used this verb in order to set the gospel preached by Epaphras apart from the Colossian heresy. Epaphras was disciple by Paul and trained to be an evangelist and church planter by the apostle Paul himself. The opponents do not appear to be associated with anyone in the apostolic circle and their teaching is not approved by Paul. In fact, the bulk of the letter engages the ideas of the opponents in order to show their teaching falls short of the Gospel.
Paul may associate himself with Epaphras in this letter because his opponents in Colossae are question his credentials–who is Epaphras to be teaching the congregation spiritual things? The church may be influenced by other teachers for guidance rather than a young evangelist like Epaphras. Paul gives him his personal approval in the opening of this letter, what Epaphras teaches is exactly what Paul taught.
Paul’s prayer serves to underscore the authority of a local pastor-evangelist who faced questions from by his church. Paul lets the church know from the first paragraph that he will be siding with Epaphras in any theological debates in the church!
Bibliography: Florence Morgan Gillman, “Epaphras (Person),” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 533.