Colossae’s Cool, Refreshing Water
In our introduction to Colossians on June 2, we learned that there was a cluster of cities in the Lycus River Valley in Turkey (formerly southwest Phrygia, Asia Minor). Specifically, that cluster was a “tri-city area” made up of Colossae, Hierapolis and Laodicea. The Tel of Colossae lies near the modern-day city of Denizli, which means “with the sea” in Turkish, referring to the abundant water sources. According to a travel guide, it’s a bit of a misnomer because Denizli is a 3-1/2 hours’ drive, 124 miles, from the Aegean Sea to the east. However, the area around Denizli/Colossae is known for its cold water springs. Unlike the neighboring ancient cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis, Colossae has not been excavated. It sits, unexplored, at the foot of Mount Cadmus. The blue ridge beyond the Tel is about 2,000 feet higher than the Appalachian Mountains.
The Lycus River is a tributary of the Maeander River, which is where we get the English word “meander.” This context is fitting, considering that Paul’s goal in writing to the Colossians was to encourage them not to drift away from the assurance of the Good News (Col. 1:23-24), warning them not to be swept along in a convoluted path. Additionally, the Greek name Colossae (Kolossai) is akin to colossus (kolossos), a huge statue. The word conveys the idea of being gigantic. How striking, considering that Paul paints such a larger-than-life picture for the Colossians of the all-sufficiency and preeminence of Christ (Col. 1:15-20).
The Hot Water of Laodicea and Hierapolis
Many of the inhabitants and visitors to Phrygia were lured by the spas and medicinal qualities of the drinking water. Following modern routes, Hierapolis (“holy city” in ancient Greek) is about 19 miles from Colossae. In contrast to Colossae’s cold water, Hierapolis (near modern-day Pamukkale, which means “cotton fortress” in Turkish) was known for its hot water baths. Heated by volcanic lava, the water is full of pure white calcium and cascades down a hillside where it cools and has the look of snow-white frosting or cotton.
About 11 miles downstream, Laodicea was on the same side of the Lycus River as Colossae. Some commentators suggest that the words to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:16 (“So because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth”) refer to the mixture of cold and hot water in that area. Some interpreters suggest that when the cold water upstream from Colossae combined with the hot water of Laodicea (perhaps originating from Hierapolis in the north), the water in Laodicea’s network of channels from the Lycus river became lukewarm.
Whatever the case may have been (allusion or no allusion), it seems that the water of Laodicea was viewed positively because there is an account that the philanthropist Hedychrous christened a water channel with his name, calling the water “sweet-complexioned.” A 4th- or 5th century inscription records that the water was “sweet” and “clear” and certainly drinkable.
The Spiritual Temperature of Colossae
Written by a man who was imprisoned, most likely in Rome, Paul’s letter to the Colossians was received by people who would also be thrown into “hot water” for their faith. Two of the people Paul mentions in his letter, Archippus and Onesimus, the runaway slave, (Col. 4:9, 17) met with tragedy, according to tradition. Archippus, (the one Paul said to tell, “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord”) may have been stoned to death with Onesimus and his master, Philemon, along with a woman named Apphia whom Paul greeted in his letter to Philemon. It is thought that Apphia was the wife of Philemon and possibly the mother of Archippus. Tradition has it that the four were stoned to death at Chonae, near Laodicea. According to legend, the Apostle Philip also died in nearby Hierapolis by being crucified or hung upside-down.
As for the people whose lives may have been touched by Paul’s words (either directly or indirectly), the “tri-city area” was the center of a devastating earthquake around AD 61-62, probably just after Paul wrote to the Colossians. The massive devastation could mean that many lives were lost. Perhaps the timing of Paul’s words was spiritually instrumental right before a difficult chapter in the tri-city area.
Likewise, rewinding to Acts 2:10 and the presence of Phrygians at Pentecost, perhaps that experience, too, was instrumental in preparing hearts to be receptive to the Gospel much later. Acts 2 tells us that many onlookers at Pentecost asked, “What does this mean?” We know that 3,000 souls were saved (Acts 2:41) and more were added to their number at Pentecost (vs. 47). Many were “cut to the heart” (vs. 37) and baptized. It is quite possible that Phrygians, maybe even Colossians, were among that number. At the very least, the Phrygians’ observations of Pentecost before returning home to the tri-city area probably planted seeds for reflection.
written by a member of the church staff
(Laodicea and Hierapolis photos are courtesy of Daryl Borgquist)