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Contending for the Faith Contending for the Faith
CONTENDING FOR THE FAITH
A Commentary On
THE BOOK OF COLOSSIANS
By JAMES ORTEN
Publisher Charles Allen Bailey
Executive Editor - Joe L. Norton, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1998
Contending for the Faith Publications
4216 Abigale Drive, Yukon, OK 73099
All Rights Reserved
All scripture quotations,
unless otherwise indicated, are taken from
The King James Version, KJV
The Book of Colossians is a letter written out of anguish (2:1) to a church in danger. The trouble is not so far advanced as in other churches to whom Paul writes, for example Corinth, perhaps accounting for the fact that his tone is more anxious than stern. But it is clear the thinking and practices of some influential persons in this young congregation have taken a wrong turn. And the errors are not minor: they are rather ones that if not corrected will lead the Colossians to lose their heavenly reward (2:8, 18).
Out of deepest anguish comes the most passionate responses. Paul’s words are guided by the Holy Spirit, but they are fitted to the conflict in his heart. From it he crafts the most sublime description of the Messiah and His work on earth ever to fall from the lips of one person and on the ears of another. This magnificent description of the person of Jesus and His sufficiency in human salvation has caused many writers to refer to the book as a "Christology." (The suffix "ology" means "a study of or knowledge of.")
The letter is written toward the end of Paul’s preaching career, which is also to say toward the end of his life. It is obvious he is in prison because he speaks of his "fellowprisoners" (4:10) and asks the Colossians to "remember my bonds" (4:18). The most likely conclusion is that the "bonds" are Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, described in Acts 28; and thus the book takes up where Acts of the Apostles ends. This background explains the close relationship of the book with Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon, which were also probably written during the same imprisonment. The similarity of the books, in which many of the same issues are discussed, indirectly suggests the influence of society on individual Christians because all of the churches are in the same general area and are suffering many of the same problems.
The City and the Region
The large region in which the city of Colosse was located was designated by the Romans as Asia. Most of the region is within the modern country of Turkey. Ephesus, just across the Aegean Sea from Athens, was the principal city. It was located near the present Turkish seaport of Izmir. Colosse was approximately 90 miles due west of Ephesus in the province that, before Roman times, had been called Phrygia. It lay on the Lycus River near where it joined the Meander River and just a few miles upstream from the much larger twin cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis.
Asia is famous in the scriptures for Paul’s having been forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the gospel there (Acts 16:6) and later being allowed to do so (Acts 18:23). In most readers’ minds, it is perhaps better known for the seven churches of Asia to whom the Book of Revelation was written. Ephesus and Laodicea were among those churches.
The region was known for its beauty and the stark contrasts of the landscape. If we can believe Turkish travel folders, it is still beautiful. Mountains, rivers, and a lush vegetation were interposed with barren areas of chalk deposits. Because the land was chalky and soft, streams created surprising shapes in white cliffs and columns. Near the city, the Lycus River is said to have sunk underground in the soft earth only to appear again several miles downstream.
Colosse was at one time a "great city of Phrygia" (Barclay 92); but by the time of Paul’s letter, it has lost most of its significance to its larger and wealthier neighbors. The textile and cloth dying industries once flourished there. One of its products is the purple dye, spoken of often in the Bible (Luke 16:19; Acts 16:14; Revelation 17:4) and so favored by the people of that time. But Colosse’s decline is only a harbinger of worse things to come because it disappears from history in the 7th or 8th Centuries A.D.
The reason for Colosse’s disappearance is not known. A fault line lies across the region; and the area was, and still is, prone to earthquakes. Some writers speculate it was devastated by this means. But the city was also prone to floods. A legend claims that Michael, the archangel, protected the people from the rising river before Paul’s time. This legend may explain the people’s temptation to worship angels (2:18), a practice that, at least in part, is the occasion for Paul’s letter. Whether by earthquake, flood, fire, or some other natural disaster, the city is destroyed and left without a trace. There are numerous ruins from nearby Laodicea and Hierapolis, but Colosse owes its memory to the fact that the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to a struggling church there.
The Church in Colosse
Paul apparently had no direct hand in establishing this church. There is no record of his having visited Colosse in the book of Acts. He speaks of these Christians as having "not seen my face in the flesh" (2:1). However, he made one of his longest continuous stays, three years (Acts 20:31), in Ephesus, which is not far away. It seems likely that Epaphras heard Paul preach in Ephesus and took the gospel back to Colosse, his hometown (4:12). Paul speaks of the Colossians as having learned the truth from "Epaphras our dear fellowservant" (1:7). This explanation seems likely also from the fact that Epaphras, being worried about the condition of the church, makes the long journey to Rome to seek the advice of his father in the gospel and mentor in the ministry. This spreading of the gospel from centers of population is understood and is intended by the apostle. We are told that during Paul’s stay in Ephesus "...all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus..." (Acts 19:10). Some commentators disagree with the view that Paul did not directly establish the Colossian church (MacKnight 374), but the arguments are not convincing in the face of the apparently forthright scriptural statements noted above.
According to most estimates, the church in Colosse was not large. Some people have wondered why Paul would choose a small church in an insignificant city to be recipients of such a lofty letter. But those who reason in this manner do not understand the apostle. He does not love cities but souls. When he enters a new country to preach, he generally goes to the larger cities because it is there he can reach the greatest number of people. Paul’s reason for writing to Colosse seems simple and straightforward. He writes to that church because the members need it. The letter is preserved in the sacred scriptures because all Christians of all ages need it.
The church at Colosse is probably largely Gentile, even though there are Jews in the city, perhaps numbering in the thousands. Alexander the Great is reported to have transported two thousand Jewish families to the region from Babylon and Mesopotamia (Lovett 161). These have prospered; and, according to Barclay, so many Jews from Palestine have followed them that those who are left behind lament the departure of their brethren for the "wines and baths of Phrygia" (93). Some of the Jews may have been converted to Christianity because the Colossian error did have some Jewish elements.
The preceding facts notwithstanding, the church still seems predominantly Gentile. The strongest proof of this fact comes from the way Paul addresses the congregation. He says, "And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled" (1:21). This passage clearly speaks of Jesus’ including the Gentiles in the salvation brought by the gospel. A few verses later he says, "To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (1:27). Note the "glory of this mystery among the Gentiles" is "Christ in you." Finally, the list of sins the apostle tells these Christians to put away (3:5-7) are characteristically pagan sins. The major theme is sexual debauchery, which is actually cultivated in the service of the idol gods served by the Gentiles.
The Colossian Heresy
The immediate impetus for Paul’s writing the letter comes from the arrival of Epaphras in Rome. Epaphras’ anxiety, which causes him to "labor fervently...in prayers" (4:12) for the church, is communicated to Paul who, because of the same love for the church, experiences a similar conflict (2:1). But what is the nature of the false doctrine that produces such concern in these devout men?
Barclay calls the Colossian heresy "one of the great problems of New Testament scholarship" (95). That difficulty seems true only if one wishes to know the details of the error. The broad outlines of the false doctrine seem easily inferred from the things Paul strongly emphasizes as right in chapter one and those he condemns as wrong in chapter two. Paul may not have known, or cared to know, the details of this "vain" and "deceitful" philosophy (2:8). It is not wise to reject a proposition before one understands it; but when the broad assumptions upon which it is based are false, the details cannot be right. If we go through chapter two and observe the ideas Paul condemns, we shall not be far from what we need to know about the Colossian heresy.
First, the heresy is being propagated by specific false teachers. Paul says, "And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words" (2:4). He gives a similar warning about "any man" in verse 8. Although he is afraid the church will be "moved away from the hope of the gospel" (1:23), as yet it has generally not done so because Paul expresses joy at "the steadfastness of your faith in Christ" (2:5). Second, the false teachers argue that not all knowledge necessary to salvation is found in Christ (2:3-4). In addition to the gospel, they offer a human philosophy that is supposed to make Christians more mature. Paul says, "No, you are complete in Christ" (2:10) and the philosophy is just intellectual snobbery (2:8). There is a hint, in the definition of the phrase "rudiments of the world," that the philosophy is based on astrology. Third, the heresy denies the full divinity of Christ, His place in creation, and His headship over all things on earth. Paul says this teaching is dishonoring the head, who is Christ (2:19). Fourth, the heresy includes the worship of angels or spirits as intermediaries between God and man (2:18). Labeled "voluntary humility," the notion was that it was arrogant for man to approach God directly. Although He has not demanded it, God would be pleased if humans would voluntarily humble themselves to pray through angels. This teaching would fit with the astrological bent of the false teachers and the times in which Paul writes. Every village, lake, mountain, star, and so forth is said to have had its own spirit deity. Finally, the false doctrine has been given a Jewish flavor because it teaches keeping of sabbaths, holy days, new moons, and so forth (2:16).
When the preceding characteristics are laid out, we see in the Colossian heresy the clear presence of the old enemy of mankind. It is called Gnosticism, which means love of, or devotion to, knowledge. It has appeared in every age and in every place where men have sought to be close to God. The devil used it to tempt our foreparents to eat of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. He says, "...your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5). This yearning is the force behind the "foolish questions" and "endless genealogies" (1 Timothy 1:4; Titus 3:9) of the Jewish mystics, and it is with us today in the exaltation of science and humanism. The particular form it takes differs from age to age and place to place, but the underlying elements are the same.
For more detail on the form of Gnosticism that was beginning to trouble the Colossian church, one may see Ellicott’s "Excursus" notes at the end of his commentary on Colossians (120-124). For the present purpose, a brief outline will suffice. It tried to deal with two great questions: first, the relationship between the eternal God (or "first cause," for gnostics did not always acknowledge a personal God) and the material world and humans; and second, the origin of evil.
The two ideas are closely related. For example, if God is inherently good, as is usually agreed, then He could have no contact with evil. The material world, on the other hand, is claimed to be evil. The implications of these assumptions go something like this: If God is good and the material world evil, then God could not have created the material world. Man, a part of the material world, was not created by God. This work of creation was given to lesser spirits who created man and then served as intermediaries between God and man. If Jesus came in the flesh, then He was not God or even fully divine. This belief accounts for Jesus’ "needing" the help of the spirits in the salvation of man.
One question remains. How and why had the particular form of Gnosticism at Colosse incorporated elements of Judaism? At first glance, it would seem the two systems had no common ground. Perhaps the basis is captured in the modern phrase, "Politics makes strange bedfellows." The gospel is still stronger in the Colossian church than either Judaism or Gnosticism. It may be that a wish for power in the church caused them to suppress their differences temporarily, the same motivation that causes political splinter groups around the world to form coalitions.
In addition to the foregoing possibility, there are elements in Judaism that would attract the gnostics. For one thing, they both believe in the one great God, or in the gnostics’ terminology, first cause. The gnostics also like the idea of a privileged class or chosen people that the Jews are loath to give up. They could easily take this concept and translate it into the intellectual elite, who alone could understand the higher mysteries of the universe and whom they considered themselves to be. The principles of Judaism, which they could not directly appropriate, they could deal with, as false teachers of all ages have done, through allegorical interpretations, foolish questions, and so forth.
The Authorship and Date of the Epistle
There appears no part of the scriptures that skeptics have left unquestioned, and that applies to the authorship of the Colossian letter (Barclay 99). There is no value in repeating those speculations here. I am certain most people who read commentaries of the New Testament believe the Bible to be God’s word and with faithful hearts are looking for a deeper understanding of His will. If one cannot trust what Paul says about his authorship of the epistle, he can scarcely trust the doctrine of its contents. Great teachers of all ages learn to teach their faith and make their doubts a more lonely struggle.
If we accept that Paul is the author and that the epistle was written from Rome during his first imprisonment, then the approximate date is easy to establish, that is the early part of the A.D. 60’s. Most writers set the dates between A.D. 61 (MacKnight 377) and A.D. 64 (Ellicott 96). The fact that the date cannot be fixed exactly does not deprive us of anything we really need to know. The Holy Spirit knew precisely how to reveal all we need to know while leaving some things to serve as stumbling blocks to the skeptical.