A few weeks ago we looked at Philippians. In it we see a great letter of encouragement. But encouragement comes in several different forms. To the churches of the Ephesus and Colossae region Paul wrote to guide them away from dangerous false teachings and back to the true Christ. If there’s ever and important lesson for us as Christians in our reading and study of God’s word, then this is it. So let’s do some reading and study of Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae, that is also to other congregations in the area and to us.
The book of Acts closes with Paul’s first imprisonment at Rome. During that time he had a good deal of freedom and a positive hope that he would soon be released. Paul would write letters to Philippi, Colossae, Philemon and the letter we call Ephesians (actually a circular letter to Ephesus and the various other congregation in the region).
It is easy for us to overlook Colossians as it is surrounded by the larger letter entitled Ephesians and the encouragingly positive letter of Philippians. But it deserves our attention as it points us incessantly to Christ. In four chapters “Christ” is used 25 times, Jesus is used 16 times, Lord is used 7 times along with combinations (Lord Jesus and Lord Jesus Christ used once each). Apparently, there is something very important about our Savior being said in this little book!
The Christ (the anointed or specifically chosen one of God) is the very reason for and ruler of creation. He has always been and is the most important one. In essence, this is what the fullness of God looks like when we see Him as earthly humans. He was crucified, buried and resurrected to be the head of the church enthroned in Heaven. He is the very reason for, the object of worship of His church. He is our hope. In short, as Paul states it, Christ is all, and in all (Colossians 3:11).
So why such a letter? Is it merely a mysterious theological lesson reserved for only preachers and teachers? Or is it a practical, vital lesson for us all as Christians working together in the Lord’s church?
As you might suspect, that last question brings us to the truth. The significance and challenges of congregational needs and worries are only seen when we begin to fully grasp our Savior. Life and faith are only clearly seen and appreciated when we know Jesus. As Paul had told the Corinthian church some years earlier, For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11).
To begin such a letter, as is true of all of God’s word, requires a bit of background and history. Colossae was in the Roman province of Asia about 120 miles east of Ephesus. Established around the 12th century BC it had once been a major city located on the old road from the coast to Syria and Mesopotamia.
But by New Testament times it had lost its prominence to Laodicea (about 10 miles away) and the new major road that bypassed Colossae. Its claim to fame in New Testament times was its famous dark red/purple wool, made with a dye from a local (cyclamen) flower. Earthquakes (in 17 AD and again c. 60 AD and thus shortly before this letter) damaged Colossae along with Laodicea. The greater importance of Laodicea would have detracted from rebuilding efforts and by 400 AD Colossae ceased to exist.
During the two years Paul taught in Ephesus all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord (Acts 19:9-10). Thus the Gospel came to Colossae via Paul’s students and fellow workers. Among those were Epaphras (Colossians 1:7-8), Nympha (4:15), Archippus (4:17) and Philemon (Philemon 1-2).
The congregation in Colossae was largely Gentile. Paul’s term uncircumcision of your flesh (Colossians 2:13) refers to this fact. Paul, in Rome, entertains a visit from Epaphras (Colossians 1:4-8) and thus learns of the news of the congregation.
With the news of the Colossae congregation come hints at a false teaching that will blossom in the second century, Gnosticism. Even as the congregation flourishes in faith, love and hope (Colossians 1:4-8) there was a subtle, growing empty or hollow deceptive philosophy (Colossians 2:8). This error runs the risk of compromising the stability and faithfulness of the congregation (Colossians 2:6-7).
Evidently, as Paul’s letter lacks the urgent criticism of Galatians, the concern is more preventative than corrective. The church has not sold out like the Galatians but Paul is genuinely concerned with preventing such a fall.
So what was this Gnosticism problem? Following Alexander the Great’s great conquests (c. 336 to 323 BC), the Greeks left in all the world they conqueror the philosophy of Greece known as Hellenism. In short, everyone was to eat like Greeks, drink like Greeks, worship the Greek gods and accept all the other philosophies and foibles of the Greeks.
High on the list for acceptance if you were “civilized” were the various deities and worship forms of Greek religion. So thorough was this Hellenization, that when the Romans came along to rule the world they virtually adopted the Greek gods, goddesses and religion lock, stock and barrel. While Latin names were given to everything, the actions and beliefs were virtually identical. Thus the Temple of Aphrodite (Latin: Venus) at Corinth was home to hundreds of prostitutes (male and female) to “service” the “worshipers.”
Every civilized person in the world was expected to be accepting of this and all other deities and practices. Exactly like today when Christians are condemned for not being tolerant of these sins, so were Christians to be labeled as racist, intolerant and deserving of death for not going along.
Early Christians, just like we are today, were offered various compromise positions to show that they were not so judgmental as to be deserving of censure by the authorities. From some Jewish Christians came the compromise of circumcision and following at least parts of the dietary and holy-day laws. This poison spread through the Galatian congregations and, like all compromise, made them susceptible to other sins.
Their world offered a couple of more Greek-like ideas that would quickly become Gnosticism. The basic concept emphasized personal knowledge and experience over anything taught by God. Your ideas and knowledge and experiences are more important than any “thus says the Lord.”
Two extremes quickly developed. First, was the “avoid everything” ascetic. This would lead, in the second century, to Christians that “proved” their faith by never bathing or shaving or changing clothes. If you never did anything possibly “wrong” in this warped view of wrong, then you would be closer to God than those that just lived everyday lives. You can imagine the picture. And these religious hermits and ascetics would last right up to modern times!
The second choice was to try everything in the world as a Christian. You still hear this teaching in the “you can’t condemn something until you’ve tried it” false teaching. This philosophy challenged believers to sin and try everything that was wrong. That way you could either prove it wrong (if you so desired, but not many did!) or you could have an improved insight into sin. This may well be where Paul was coming from with the challenge, Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase (Romans 6:1)?
As you study Colossians you will see Paul dealing with all these extremes the same way. NOTHING comes before the Lord. He is God and He is the one we listen to and obey in all things. Mankind can NEVER invent a philosophy that will replace God’s will and God’s word!
Paul repeatedly shows that Jesus the Christ is supreme. He is the one, the only one, we are to listen to and obey. And if all this is true, how much more time and effort should we be devoting to God’s word and our obedience to it?
So get a head start with Colossians and watch for Paul’s lessons. And with our next study, we’ll dig into it a little deeper!
—Lester P. Bagley