“Be careful no one enslaves you through intellectualism or deceptive speculations, according to the carnality and traditions of the world, by disregarding the teachings of Christ. For through Him, God lives embodied. When you have Christ you have everything, for He is the highest authority over all angelic powers. You were set free from your sinful nature by the spiritual circumcision of Christ, not by any physical act. You have identified with His death by water baptism and are now raised with Him through faith in the power of God.” (2:8-12, paraphrased)
The polemic section of the epistle begins with a call for vigilance. Paul presents his case for the all-sufficiency of Christ and addresses the spurious teachings circulating in Colossae. Because Jesus is the sole link between God the Father and the human race, other alleged mediators are unnecessary. “There is one mediator between God and man: the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 2:5).
A fundamental aspect of this heresy is the denial of Christ’s incarnation. Gnostics argue that God cannot incarnate, therefore communication between heaven and earth is only possible through angelic intermediaries who are worthy of worship. Once the heretics “prove” the incarnate Christ did not suffer and die for sin, they will propagate additional fallacies.
Years earlier in Galatia, Paul deals with Judiaziers who attempt to blend circumcision with Christianity. But the false doctrine circulating in the Lychus Valley contain elements of both Judaism and asceticism. The attack on the Colossian’s faith is sustained and unrelenting. However, to allow such teachings to infect the church would undermine the power and teachings of Christ.
Although the details of this heresy are obscure, Paul’s warning is specific. He is concerned that no one lead the Colossians astray through persuasive arguments. “Beware” (blepete) means “to be on guard” or “to take heed.” To make a “spoil of you” (sulagogeo) pictures one stripped of their possessions by violence, then carried away like plunder. Here it is used figuratively of one robbed of the truth and taken into captivity by heretical teachers. This same concept is used by Peter when he warns that “men with feigned words will make merchandise of you” (II Pet. 2:3). The Colossians are in danger of being victimized by men who would steal their freedom in Christ and enslave them intellectually. Believers have been liberated through Christ and must avoid being “entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).
Paul labels this doctrine as “philosophy and vain deceit.” “Philosophy” comes from the words philo (love) and sophea (knowledge). To love knowledge is not necessarily sinful, but “the wisdom of the world” is evil when it deviates from the teaching of Christ (I Cor. 1:17-24). Paul qualifies his use of philosophia by mentioning that “subversive speculation” accompanies this particular form of theosophy. “Vain deceit” (kenes apates) describes the futility and the deception associated with it. Kenes is interpreted as “empty,” for the philosophy in question is devoid of truth, power, and hope. Philosophical teachings are empty and counterproductive when they disregard the wisdom of God inherent in Christ. The proven failings of intellectualism bear testimony to the need for divine revelation.
The Colossian heresy is dangerous for two reasons. First of all, it is rooted in human traditions and rituals. Mainline denominationalism proves it is easier to blindly follow traditional religious ceremonialism than to personally communicate with Jesus. Ritualistic observances have deluded millions into believing they will one day attain some form of esoteric salvation.
Secondly, these teachings are “rudimentary” (stoicheia). The “rudiments” or “elements” of the world to which Paul refers include the angelic spirits the Gnostics pay homage to. To be under the control of such entities is to remain spiritually immature. For Paul, the thought of any Believer transferring faith in Christ to angelic mediators is horrific. Interestingly, the term stoicheia can also refer to the basic letters of the alphabet. This implies the false teachers are restricted to “the ABC’s” of elementary instruction. Childish concepts are not worthy to be compared to the spiritual maturity developed by the followers of Christ.
Paul frequently uses the term “world” (kosmos) in his letters. This word always refers to that which belongs to the realm of material things. Empty philosophical speculations are inevitably tied to the earth. But the real test of truth or falsehood is how it lines up with the teachings of Christ. He shows He alone is the standard by which all doctrine is authenticated by declaring, “I am the truth” (Jn. 14:6).
In the person of Jesus dwells all the fullness (pleroma) of the godhead (Jn. 1:26). “Dwells” (katoikei) indicates permanent residency. Paul uses the term “fullness” (pleroma) when referring to the totality of Christ’s power and attributes (Col. 1:19). His divine pleroma is “clothed” in human form throughout the era of His incarnation.
In the first century, pleroma is also a popular term among Gnostics regarding their imaginary intermediaries. In the 21st century, the numerous New Age religions all claim divinity (pleroma) resides in every human being. Paul stresses that the fullness of deity, the godhead (theotetos), fully dwells in Christ alone (Rom. 1:20). Theotetos includes God’s divine attributes as well as His divine essence. The nature of God is embodied in Christ’s pre-incarnate state (Jn. 1:1), during His life on earth (Jn. 1:14), and throughout eternity (Rev. 22:13).
Although smooth talk and human wisdom is attractive, Believers have placed their trust in something much more definitive and effective. Bound to Him by love, we share His life and divine essence. A personal relationship with God through Christ is what every human being craves, whether or not they can articulate the need.
We are “complete” (pleroo) in Him. This term has its roots in the word “fullness” (pleroma). Paul uses this word when he prays the Ephesians will be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). The pleroma of Christ is transfused into Believers by virtue of association with Him. Because we share His nature, Christ fully meets every essential spiritual need.
All powers that exist in the universe owe their existence to Christ and are under His authority. As the “Head,” He is the source of all life and energy. Because Jesus is sovereign over all “principalities and powers,” it is ludicrous to pay homage to them.
Paul now addresses an aspect of the Colossian heresy that evidently involves urging its adherents to accept Judaic circumcision. The actual rite of circumcision involves the removal of a small piece of flesh from the male sex organ. God originally established the act of circumcision as an outward sign of an inward change. Ideally, physical circumcision includes “circumcision of the heart” (Jer. 4:4 & Rom. 2:28-29). Circumcision is a pledge to obey the Laws of Moses but is powerless to affect internal change. Paul indicates “the circumcision of Christ” removes all sins of the flesh (sarx). He uses a related metaphor when he urges the Galatians to “crucify the flesh (sarx) with its passions and lusts” (Gal. 5:24). By uniting with Christ, Believers enjoy the reality circumcision symbolizes.
The “body of sins” to which Paul refers is the human carnality every Believer must denounce. The concept of “putting off” (apekdusei) brings to mind divesting one’s self of armor or clothing and deliberately leaving it behind. Christ’s “circumcision of the heart” discards one’s dominate evil nature and replaces it with His nature (Eph. 2:11). The necessary prerequisite for “putting on the new nature” is the “putting off of the old nature” (Eph. 4:22-24). This “spiritual circumcision” symbolizes the effect wrought within every Believer through Christ’s atonement.
Paul reinforces the concept of circumcision by adding a snapshot of water baptism. Both are outward signs of inward change. Just as the body of sin is symbolically “cast off” by circumcision, baptism represents the burial of the old nature and resurrection to a new life in Christ (Rom. 6:3-4). Water baptism should be viewed as the tomb of the former nature and the birthplace of the new nature. However, for the person whose heart remains “uncircumcised,” baptism is a meaningless ritual. The symbolism behind baptism also reminds us of our future resurrection. “Because He lives, we shall live also” (Jn. 14:19).
We must place faith in God’s “operation” or “working” (energeias), the basis for the word “energy.” His resurrection power maintains and sustains the spiritual energy residing within us.
Points to Ponder
1. Why is the denial of Christ’s incarnation fundamental to most heretical teachings? Why is the doctrine of His incarnation so important?
2. Research and define the term “philosophy.” List the different branches of philosophy. List some dangers involved in accepting philosophical teachings.
3. From the first chapter of John’s Gospel, list several truths concerning Jesus in His pre-incarnate state.
4. What does Paul tell the Ephesians to “put off” and to “put on” (Eph. 4:22-24)?
5. Research and define the concept of circumcision. When was it initiated in the Old Testament? What was the reason for it? What does it symbolize?
6. Research and define the significance of water baptism (Romans 6:4-5). Does the act itself play any part in one’s salvation? If so, why? If not, why not?
7. How far does the authority of Christ extend (I Peter 3:22)?