The Church at Colosse was not founded directly by the Apostle Paul, but through another disciple, Epaphras, who probably heard the Gospel from Paul in Ephesus (Col 1:7)
Like many cities of the Roman province of Asia, the prevailing religious culture was one of polytheism. However, there was also a large Jewish community in this city and in the adjacent cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. With pagan polytheism alongside Jewish mysticism, the religious environment was pervaded by the worship of many gods, as well as by the Jewish traditions of veneration of spirits, protecting powers and angels. Worship practices frequently involved asceticism and abuse of the body (Col 2:23). There is direct mention of this Jewish mysticism in the “worship of angels” in Col 2:16-23 where it is linked with the observance of Jewish festivals, new moons and Sabbaths.
Another feature of the religious environment in places such as Colosse was the willingness to blend together religious ideas from a number of local traditions. This is known as syncretism and there were evidently individuals seeking to influence the Colossian believers in that direction (Col 2:18-19). Hearing about these teachers in the ecclesia is probably what prompted Paul to write this letter and he describes them as ‘puffed up without reason’ and ‘not holding to the Head’ i.e. Christ.
In Col 1:12-13 we find part of Paul’s counter argument to this influence. Speaking in v12 about the impact of their response to the Gospel, he says they “give thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light“. There is just the merest hint here of an allusion to the time of the exodus, with the anticipation of the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness waiting to receive their inheritance in the promised land.
This suspicion of an allusion is confirmed by the language of v13:
“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son“.Colossian 1:13
The word transferred (gk. methistemi) is rare and has a specific meaning of “to transfer from one place to another” (BDAG Greek-English lexicon). This definitely continues the exodus allusion of people being relocated, as Israel were delivered from Egypt and constituted as a new nation with the prospect of a promised inheritance. Paul wants the Colossians to think of their transition from a previous way of life to a new one in the same sort of way. Just as Israel escaped their slave masters in Egypt (the domain of darkness) and entered a covenant to serve a new Master, he wants the Christians of Colosse to think of themselves as having escaped bondage to old superstitions to now be under the rulership of a new king, the beloved Son. He doesn’t want them to look back or try to blend their old ways with the Gospel, but to leave it all behind and press forward.
To get the full impact of Paul’s statement we also need to appreciate the broader definition of ‘kingdom’ as meaning royalty, or royal authority. This explains why the phrase is in the past tense: “he has transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son“. In committing to Christ, Christians, whether in 1st century Colosse or today, place themselves under the royal authority of the anointed Son of God. In this sense they have already been transferred from the domain of darkness into his kingdom, from serving an old master to living under the royal authority of a new king (Christ). In writing to the Romans, Paul puts it like this:
“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”Romans 6:17-18
The Colossian believers needed to leave their “Egypt” behind along with those trying to blend the Gospel with their previous philosophies and practices. That seems like a call that is equally relevant for Christians today.
Note: Paul’s allusion in Colossians to the exodus is typical of the many “echoes” across different Biblical texts. How to identify them and apply them to help interpret the text is covered in our “Learn to read the Bible effectively course“.