The Epistle to the Colossians can be viewed as apologetic, for it defends Christian doctrine against heretical teachings. It was written by Paul from Rome around 61 A.D. during his first Roman imprisonment. During Paul’s incarceration there, the Colossian church sends Epaphras to him with a report (1:7-8). Although most of it is favorable, Paul learns about certain false teachers who are corrupting the church with a blend of Judaism and pagan philosophies. As in Galatia, heretics creep into area churches attempting to pervert the Gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:7).
Paul cannot allow the Colossians to entertain any teachings subversive to the pure gospel they received a few years earlier. Throughout this epistle, Paul combats facets of legalism (2:14-17), mysticism (2:18-19), and asceticism (2:20-23). His purpose for writing is to encourage their spiritual growth in Christ, warn them against relapsing into former pagan vices, and refute those doctrines that can only lead them to spiritual ruin. The letter stresses Christ’s supremacy, the completeness of His vicarious atonement, and the superiority of His teachings over all others.
The Church at Colossae
The three prominent cities in the Lycus valley in Asia Minor are Laodicea, Heirapolis, and Colossae. They are situated in ancient southern Phrygia west of modern Turkey. The Laodiceans erect temples to many contemporary deities, winning her the title of “The Sacred City.” Due to its appetite for wealth and luxury, Laodicea becomes an epithet for “lukewarm” (Rev. 3:14-16). While this metropolis grows into a prosperous political city, the neighboring town of Heirapolis becomes famous as a resort and trade center. The smaller town of Colossae, located just ten miles east of Laodicea, fails to gain the prominence of her sister cities. Colossae is the least notable of any city addressed in Pauline literature.
Paul first visits the Lycus valley during his third missionary journey when he and others evangelize Ephesus and the surrounding area in the mid-50’s A.D. Colossae is situated on a main road linking Ephesus (in the west) and Persia (in the east). Paul’s missional strategy includes establishing churches along primary trade routes. He sees the churches in the Lycus valley as the gateway to the thickly populated southwestern corner of Asia Minor. All those dwelling in Asia eventually hear the Word of the Lord (Acts. 19:10).
Because Paul is not personally responsible for the evangelistic efforts in the Lycus valley, it is doubtful he establishes the church at Colossae (Col. 2:1). It is more likely the congregation is originally formed through the efforts of his co-worker Epaphras (Col. 4:12-13). The numerous allusions to Colossian conversions means the church is probably only a few years old when Paul writes to them (1:4-9 & 2:5-7). There is no direct evidence Paul ever personally visits Colossae, for he tends to revisit only churches he has birthed. It is not his ministerial style to build on the foundations of other men (Rom. 15:20).
The Colossian Heresy
Thousands of Jews resettle in the Lycus Valley during the second century B.C. Because they came from Babylon and Mesopotamia, the Law of Moses they bring with them has been tainted by pagan influences. Egyptian and Eastern religions blend with philosophies of Epicureans and Stoics. Jewish beliefs and practices assimilate with those of indigenous Greeks and Phrygians. Colossae becomes a cosmopolitan city where spurious doctrines and ascetic practices freely mingle. This homogenized atmosphere is ripe for the introduction of intriguing ideologies. Although the problems in the Colossian church are not clearly stated, there is evidently a real danger of merging popular philosophies with Christianity. But the infiltration of heretics comes as no surprise to Paul, for he predicts their arrival years before (Acts 20:29-30).
The church at Colossae is comprised of Gentiles. In fact, there is no hint in the letter any of the readers are Jewish. When Paul writes to the Galatians a few years earlier, a heresy has been promoted by certain Jews who seek to blend Christianity with Judaism. However, the Colossian problem is more complex. The teachings do contain Jewish elements, for Paul mentions circumcision, legalities, food regulations and Sabbaths. The heretics there promote a strange combination of Judaic legalism, mysticism, Greek religions, and intellectual exclusiveness. It contains aspects of what is later called “Gnosticism.”
Gnosticism is a broad term which mingles assorted pagan beliefs with western intellectualism and eastern mysticism. The Greek term gnostikos means “one who has knowledge.” Gnostics cling to multi-faceted doctrines which are shrouded in secrecy. Its concepts are expressed in vague and elusive myths. Gnosticism is parasitic, adapting and attaching itself to whatever religious system it encounters. A common denominator in Gnostic cults is their obsession with the idea that knowledge is the key to the victory of good over evil. For Gnostics, true spirituality is attained only through knowledge.
Foundational Gnostic beliefs include but are not limited to the following:
• The world itself is a mistake or an accident caused by an ignorant deity. Evil in the world results from an unknown problem within the godhead. The world is hostile and alienated from God for it is matter and not spirit. Because the world is created from evil matter and is possessed by evil spirits, it cannot be the creation of a “good” God. He is therefore considered to be far removed from all material things. Evil exists in the world because God is weak. Only human wisdom can rid the world of evil. True salvation is found only in knowledge.
• All matter is evil and therefore cannot reside in the soul but in one’s material body. The soul is good and the body is evil. The soul is “imprisoned” in the body. The physical desires of human beings are only controlled by rigid rules and abstinence.
• There is no possibility of man having a personal relationship with any deity, for God has no contact with corrupt human nature. Christ cannot be both divine as well as human, therefore He did not incarnate. Christ is only a phantom, without a real body of flesh and blood.
• Powerful angelic intermediaries control the destiny of individual humans by bridging the gap between God and man. Because angels control all communications between God and the human race, He can be reached only through angelic mediation. The angels closer to God are more godlike and those closer to the human race are more manlike. Collectively, all such beings have power over the material universe. Worship must be given to the highest angels in this hierarchy to win their favor and be protected against evil forces in the world.
Because angelology is also a fundamental Jewish doctrine, it is not a long stretch for Hellenistic Jews to deify and worship them through various rituals (Col. 2:18). However, to enthrone angels is to dethrone Christ (Heb. 2:5-9). When this embryonic form of Gnosticism is introduced to the Colossian church, the false teachers label Christ as just one of countless spiritual entities. Because angelic powers play a key role in their teachings, the sovereignty of Christ is negated and undermined. Since knowledge is the Gnostic’s “savior” they attach no importance to Jesus’ atonement. Paul warns Timothy there are “those who are always learning, yet never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4). Gnostics believe Christ’s mediatorship cannot bridge the gap between God and man and therefore His work on the cross is in vain. But God’s plan of salvation allows every person to reach Him through Christ without angelic assistance.
Gnosticism also includes many forms of asceticism: the belief that one can reach a higher spiritual state through rigorous self-discipline and self-denial. They view life as a complex mythological-cosmological drama. Their exclusive possession of special revelations results in a separatism marked by an attitude of superiority. The radical diversity within Gnosticism makes any fixed rule of faith impossible. Like the globally acclaimed New Age movement of the 21st century, there is no “standard work of reference” for Gnosticism. New Age philosophy is simply an updated version of the old Colossian heresy.
Paul earlier censures the Corinthians for sifting Christian truth through philosophic filters (I Cor. 1:17-21). He reminds them Christ is both the wisdom of God and the power of God (v. 24). The Colossian Christians are probably urged by false teachers to accumulate knowledge until they attain a form of “perfectionism.” But the knowledge of Christ is available to all men, not just the “spiritually elite.”
All branches of philosophy attempt either to explain God, explain Him away entirely, or explain why man is not accountable to Him. But the truth inherent in the nature of Christ eclipses whatever wisdom that might be found in any other source. Christ reigns supreme over all beings in both the material and the spirit world (Col. 1:15-19 & 2:9). To water down the Gospel is to liquidate it completely. Christ needs no other mediators, for the Father has set Him “far above all principalities and powers” (Eph.1:21). God’s uncomplicated plan of salvation must not be complicated by human error.
Points to Ponder
To better understand the religious beliefs in Paul’s era, succinctly state the core beliefs of each of the following systems. Quote the chapter and verse in Colossians in which any trace elements of these beliefs are found.