The problem faced
The church at Colossae, as far as the records show, never had a visit from the apostle Paul. Yet this great servant of God had reports of its standing by a man called Epaphras (Col.1:7-8). This man let Paul know the state of the saints there. From the way Paul wrote, they were in a goodly position: they had started well in the Faith and were continuing strongly. In his prayer for them Paul prays that they would go on further in the things of God.
However, at the commencement of the second chapter Paul says that he has had great conflict for them and those at the neighbouring Laodicean church (Col.2:1). Why was this? Although the church had not fallen into error there was a great danger of it doing so. For a strange set of false teachings was doing the rounds, and the believers were in danger of being drawn into it.
This set of false teaching was a strange admixture of Greek Philosophy, Judaic Legalism and Mysticism. According to many commentators this was an early form of what we now know as Gnosticism. This heresy didn’t come to fruition until about the second century AD, but its elemental forms were present at the time of the early church.
Paul writes the Colossian letter as a warning to them. They were exhorted not to be drawn into these false ideas and thereby removed from Christ. So, what exactly was this teaching (for convenience we shall refer to it as Gnosticism), and why was it so dangerous?
The whole system, as it developed, became quite sophisticated, but the basic ideas were as follows:
1) They believed that matter was evil and spirit good.
2) The true God was far off and could not be known; neither was He the creator of the universe. Thus, they rejected that the God of the OT was the God of the NT (a heresy taken up by Marcion, about a century later).
3) There were ‘emanations’ from God who were called the ‘Pleroma’ and were intermediaries. These were, what we might call demi-gods, beings in a sort of hierarchy with each one a lesser divine being than the previous. This led to the blasphemous deduction that Jesus was the last of these emanations and therefore not God manifest in the flesh.
4) Human beings had a ‘divine spark’ imprisoned in the physical body, which could only be released by gaining secret knowledge, called ‘gnosis’. Hence the name Gnosticism.
We will deal with these and other aspects of this heresy as we study Colossians.
Thus, we see this heresy attacks every fundamental teaching of the Christian truth. Paul in Colossians goes about masterfully, under divine inspiration, dismantling it and showing the glorious truth of the person of Christ and the true gospel. It must not be thought that Paul alone tackled this heresy. John in both his gospel record and first epistle addresses some of the Gnostic’s false teachings. We shall refer to some of these passages in our studies.
Indeed, Paul refers to this ‘gnosis’ as being opposed to the gospel in a later epistle
O Timotheus, the thing entrusted guard thou, avoiding the profane vain-words and opposition of the falsely-named knowledge (Gk. gnosis) which certain professing- concerning the faith did swerve…
I Tim.6:20-21 YLT
The problem answered
Paul, in Colossians, tackles the error by firstly presenting the true nature of the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Secondly, he demonstrates unequivocally that the work of salvation that Christ achieved is all sufficient, and that we do not need anything else to add to our experience, in order to live the true life that God wants for us.
In this book we see:
(A) The supremacy of the person of Christ. Jesus is preeminent in all things.
(B) The sufficiency of the work of Christ. By warning his readers of four dangers Paul shows that the salvation work of the Lord Jesus is all sufficient for anyone. Any other experience will only take us away from Christ.
(C) The substantiality of the life of Christ. If this salvation means anything, then it will be seen in our everyday life and in our relationships with others around us. The gospel of Jesus is not a belief system, rather it is a dynamic relationship with the Godhead that alters our disposition and rules our hearts.
In all the ages of the past two millennia such false teachings, as mentioned in Colossians, in various disguises, have been present, and indeed are now around in the 21st century. Indeed, as Solomon says, there is nothing new under the sun. Thus, by examining these dangers and applying them to our present-day situation we can learn much and profit greatly.
The writer prays that these studies will encourage everyone to look unto Jesus constantly and not be drawn away by the sleight of men. If this series helps only one person the writer will have considered the efforts all worthwhile.