The church at Colossae was not founded by Paul. It is likely sometime during Paul’s time in Ephesus (Acts 19) a man named Epaphras brought the Gospel to the small town of Colossae (for details, see Who was Epaphras?). Perhaps Epaphras reached out to Paul for advice on dealing with a growing problem in his small church and Paul responded with a short letter addressing what is often called (rather dramatically) the Colossian Heresy. Whatever the heresy was, it is quite different than other issues Paul dealt with in earlier letters.
The churches in Galatia struggled with Gentiles who wanted to keep the Law. The churches in Corinth struggled with Gentiles who did not sufficient “depaganize” and allow Christ to transform their moral behavior. In Colossae, it appears the problem was a Jewish mystic, possibly exorcist who advocated “secret knowledge” which only the spiritual, insiders could obtain. This teaching was possibly esoteric, secret knowledge about the true nature of Jesus Christ. It is also possible some in the church wanted to use Jesus’ name as a powerful tool for dealing with other spiritual beings. For more on the Colossian Heresy, see What Was the Problem in Colossae?
The false teaching Paul addresses in Colossians is a very pragmatic Christianity which attempts to hide knowledge of the real facts until the believer is sufficiently prepared to receive it. While I am not sure the Colossian heresy was a mystery cult in the technical sense of the word, there seem to have been an initiation for the believer before they were shown the true state of things.
For Paul, Christianity is not at all an exclusive religion which hides doctrine from the outsiders. In fact, everyone is welcome and the whole gospel is preached from the very beginning. There are some deeper, more difficult doctrines, but there is nothing which is a secret. This is one of the real differences between Christianity and many of the other “mystery cults”popular in the first century (and today!) It really is easy to understand the basics of Christian claims and beliefs, whether you like them or not.
Paul therefore goes to the root of the problem and lays out in the introduction to the letter exactly who Jesus is. All the “secrets” are laid out before the reader and there is no question who Jesus is by the end of 1:20.
- Christ as the image of the invisible God. By saying that Christ is in the image of God, he affirms that he is an accurate picture of what God is, and in fact, he is God. F. F. Bruce once said “To call Christ the image of God is to say that in Him the being and nature of God have been perfectly manifested—that in Him the invisible has become visible.”
- Christ as the firstborn of creation. This title for has been a very troublesome exegetical point since it appears that Jesus is a created thing, the first thing that God created. But if this phrase is read against the background of the Hebrew Bible, the word “first born” is actually an expression of position – the son chosen to the the heir as opposed to the naturally born first son. A bit later Paul calls Jesus the“firstborn from among the dead,” an obvious non-literal use of the word “firstborn.”
The point Paul is getting at is that Christ has made things, so it is pointless to give honor and worship to those things. All honor and worship is due Christ, not anything created. The command is therefore to worship Christ as God, something that would be idolatrous if Christ is a created thing himself. The centrality of Jesus is therefore the starting point for theology in Colossians, but also for ethical and moral teaching and proper worship.
Bibliography: F. F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems: Part 2: The “Christ Hymn” of Colossians 1:15–20″ BibSac 141 (1984): 99-111