The Epistle to the Colossians is part of a small contingent of “prison epistles,” a group that also includes the New Testament letters of Philippians, Ephesians, and Philemon. These prison epistles are so-named because they are thought to have been written by the Apostle Paul while he was under house arrest in the city of Rome.
Paul had earlier made several missionary journeys and spent well over a decade on the road preaching the gospel and establishing churches throughout the first-century world. Upon his return from his third missionary trip, the New Testament book of Acts tells us Paul was arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish High Court) and two Roman governors.
Paul’s case dragged on for over two years until he finally exercised his right as a Roman citizen and appealed his case to Caesar, the Roman Emperor. The governor presiding over his case told him, “Very well!! You have appealed to Caesar, and to Caesar you shall go!” (Acts 25:12). And so Paul was taken to Rome to appeal his case before the Emperor. That arduous journey (which included a shipwreck off the island of Malta) took approximately two years to complete and covered over two thousand miles (3219 km).
Following that odyssey, Acts 28:16 goes on to tell us, “Now when we came to Rome, the centurion delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard; but Paul was permitted to dwell by himself with the soldier who guarded him.” So even though Paul was confined by the Roman authorities, these pre-trial conditions enabled him to receive visitors and interact with others. This allowed Paul to communicate the message of Christ to everyone who wished to hear (Acts 28:17-31).
It was during this period that Paul was likely approached by a man named Epaphras. Although little is known about Epaphras, he is mentioned twice in this letter to the Colossians. From those references we learn that he was a citizen of Colossae (Colossians 4:12) and helped to bring the message of the Gospel to that city (Colossians 1:7). In light of this, it appears that Epaphras came to Christ under Paul’s ministry (perhaps during one of Paul’s earlier stops in the nearby town of Ephesus) and then returned to Colossae to preach the gospel and establish the church there.
Some time later it seems that Epaphras traveled to Rome to seek Paul’s counsel regarding an aberrant teaching that had been introduced to the church at Colossae. We’ll consider the nature of that teaching next.