Paul never visited Colossae, and it isn’t mentioned in the book of Acts. The church there was most likely founded by Epaphras during Paul’s two-year stay in Ephesus on his third missionary journey.
Since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth; as you also learned from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf (Colossians 1:6-7)
The city was located in a fertile valley with a healthy economy based on wool and cloth dying. It was once on a major trade route between Persia and the coastal port of Ephesus, but another route had opened up that bypassed the city and it had lost much of its former importance by the time of Paul’s writing.
The population was made up of native Phrygians, Greeks who had moved there to trade during the Greek Empire, and Jews (which made up a large percentage of the town but were, apparently, not much of a presence in the church). It became part of the Roman Empire in B.C. 133.
Paul was in prison in Rome (Colossians 4:10-18). It couldn’t have been a pleasant imprisonment, but it could have been worse. He was shackled to a member of the Praetorian guard (Philippians 1:13) at all times, but he was in his own rented house (Acts 28:30) and able to receive visitors. Ephaphras visited Paul and told him about the heretical beliefs that were creeping into the church at Colossae. It’s likely that Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians and his letter to the church at Ephesus at the same time and sent them both by Tychicus.
The heresy creeping into the church at Colossae isn’t an easy one to grasp, like that afflicting the churches in Galatia. It was a mix of things that had mingled together and were distracting the believers from the truth.
First there was Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that salvation came through knowledge, but not the kind of knowledge you could acquire by study. They believed that a special few were given special knowledge from astrology and magic and that those “in the know” would ascend to God by means of a series of passwords.
The Gnostics also believed that all matter was evil, which led them in two separate directions. Some were extreme ascetics who avoided all sort of indulgence and punished their bodies to free themselves from desires. Others, considering only the spiritual realm to be important, gave in to all their desires because the physical didn’t matter anyway.
But if matter is evil, how could a holy God have created it? The Gnostics’ explanation for that is that He didn’t, and that He isn’t interested in it either. But God put forth “emanations,” (whatever that means), each containing a little less of Himself. Eventually, one of these emanations, which still had enough of God to create but was so far removed from Him that it could create a world of matter without corrupting God’s purity, made the world we know. Or something like that.
Of course this belief led to the denial of Jesus Christ. They thought He was either a phantom who only appeared to have a body but wasn’t really human, or they denied His deity.
The Colossians were also being influenced by the Essenes, a sect of mystical Jews who were also rigidly ascetic. Their adherence to the Mosaic law was extreme, even greater than that of the Pharisees. Even the simplest functions of life, for example, picking up a glass, were forbidden on the Sabbath. Most rejected marriage as evil. They were vegetarians and drank no alcohol. They worshiped the sun and angels. They didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection. And like the Gnostics, they believed that they were specially privileged with the truth and wouldn’t share it with anyone who wasn’t an initiate.
Throughout Paul’s letter, he stressed the truth of his gospel in opposition to these falsehoods, especially in relation to Jesus Christ. Some commentaries consider Colossians to be Paul’s most detailed description of the Person of Christ.
The commentaries I’m using for this study are:
Ephesians and Colossians in the Greek New Testament, by Kenneth S. Wuest (1953) Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Colossians and Philemon, by Curtis Vaughan (1973) Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan
King James Bible Commentary (1983) Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee
Colossians: The Preeminence of Christ, by C.R. Stam (2002) Berean Bible Society, Germantown, Wisconsin
Colossians, by W.E. Vine — Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee