In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul highlights the divine Person and creative and redemptive work of Christ against devaluation of Christ by a particular heresy that threatens the church at Colossae. Then Paul draws out the practical implications of this high Christology for everyday life and conduct.
The Colossian heresy blends Christianity together with Jewish legalism, Greek philosophic speculation, and Oriental mysticism. Perhaps the location of Colossae on an important trade route linking East and West contributed to the mixed character of the false teaching. This joining of religions together in exotic hybrids is happening today in both Eastern and Western countries with the increasing “globalization” of religion.
All we know of the false teachers is contained in a few brief references to their errors; these references are not systematically given as an analysis of their doctrine, but only as occasion required and for the purpose of confirming the opposite truths. It is likely that the false teachers had at that time no fully developed system (although this did happen later in certain forms of Gnosticism), but only a few prominent tenets, such as those which Paul condemns. They were probably only the exponents of certain prevailing tendencies, rather than the originators of a clearly defined and formal heresy (as contrasted with Acts 15:1).
Moreover, the false teachers’ purpose was not to deny Christ, but to dethrone Him with teachings of the angels being the true mediators between God and man, and Christ being one of many “Emanations” of God. Their doctrine did not deny His death but undervalued it, in promoting the pursuit of peace through ceremonial and ascetic practices. Their conscious purpose was not to subvert Christianity but only to perfect it. They were not trying to convert the Church to Judaism or to paganism, but to introduce into the Church certain mystical views and practices, and certain forms of “super-spiritual” and elite piety. They were promoting alternate and “higher” paths to spiritual maturity.
These teachers were not like the Pharisees or Judaizers with their outward formality, ostentation, judgmentalism, hypocrisy and self-righteousness obtained from obeying the mere letter of the law. They were more like the Essenes: mystics in doctrine, ascetics in practice, endlessly speculating about hidden truth and esoteric spiritual realities.
Paul looked at what was happening in Colossae and, by virtue of his apostolic gifting (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10), recognized these, albeit undeveloped, tendencies and corrected them. His corrections are pertinent to us today.
The general characteristics of the heresy were:
- Detractions from the Person of Jesus Christ. Thus, Paul stresses Jesus’ preeminence (1:15-19). In fact, this letter becomes a magnificent presentation of the Person and work of Christ, containing some of the New Testament’s most exalted descriptions of Him. Any doctrine or approach that devalues Christ (e.g., Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons), or simply does not preeminently stress Him (e.g., “oneness” doctrine, Catholic worship of Mary or going through the saints as intermediaries, the American blending of Christianity with patriotism, the goal of the Christianization of culture, or “putting aside our doctrinal differences” to work together to seek a “higher” goal such as family values, racial reconciliation or social justice for the poor), should be avoided. The Christian life is all about Jesus (2:6-7). Nothing is higher or more important than Him.
- Emphasis on human philosophical speculations divorced from divine revelation (2:8). Thus, Paul stresses the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Word of God (1:28; 2:3). Today’s Church is tempted with vain speculation regarding postmodernism, etc., all of which has an aura of “deeper knowledge.” We must return to the simplicity of the Word of God that reveals the Lord Jesus.
- Elements of Judaism, such as circumcision (2:11; 3:11), rabbinic tradition (2:8), dietary regulations (2:20-22) and Sabbath and festival observances (2:16), which were seen as necessary, not to attain salvation, but to attain a higher level of holiness and spirituality. Thus, Paul stresses that all these things are but the shadows of which the substance is Christ (2:10, 17). Our salvation is gained and maintained only through Him. Modern day: identification with various religious traditions (e.g., Reformed, Baptist, Mennonite, Pentecostal) instead of Christ Himself. We have a different heritage than that of human religions (cf. Matt. 15:3, 9). Regarding festivals and Sabbaths, these are becoming very popular in some circles – not as means of obtaining salvation, but as ways to go “deeper” in God. But we don’t go deeper in God by returning to “shadows” that have been abolished. We go deeper in God through increasing knowledge and relationship with the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed by His Spirit through His Word!
- Preoccupation and fascinated involvement with the angelic realm; the pagan worship of angels as intermediaries keeping the highest God (pure Spirit) unsullied through contact with the (evil) physical universe (2:18). (Orthodox Jews have constructed a hierarchy of angels, but they do not worship them nor do they regard the materiality of the universe as evil.) Thus, Paul stresses the preeminence and all-sufficiency of Christ (2:19). Modern day: preoccupation with angels and demons. For example: casting demons into a box, commanding angels, receiving false angelic revelation (e.g., Angels on Assignment) etc. Bible: Angels are our ministers (Heb. 1:14) but we are not to directly command them (they move at God’s command), and we are to be preoccupied with Jesus. Moreover, our revelation is to come from the Word of God, which the believer must know (cf. Gal. 1:8).
- Ascetic practices (2:20-23) designed to perfect the believer’s holiness. Thus, Paul stresses the reality of the daily Christian life of walking in union with Jesus in His death and resurrection (2:20; 3:1ff). These kinds of practices have always been popular with their appearance of holiness and humility. In reality, however, they are worthless in going deeper in God and usually result in fleshly pride. Moreover, such practices obscure the simplicity of the Christian life. If Satan cannot tempt the believer into sin, he will do the opposite and try to tempt the believer into false holiness with its accompanying spiritual pride!
- Exclusivistic secrecy and superiority. Thus, Paul stresses the all-inclusiveness and publicity of the Gospel (1:5-6, 20, 23, 28; 3:11). Today, many groups around the world live in the delusion that they have some “deeper light” than everyone else, resulting in carnal pride and sectarianism, and sometimes even in secrecy (in an extraordinary contra- diction of Mark 16:15). Such characteristics are infallible indications of error and even cultishness. Moreover, the true Gospel is outward looking, rather than existing merely to bring the believer into an exclusive and self-absorbed “Christianity” which is centered on the personal blessings derived from one’s privatized relationship with God, and in which the Church gathers together to meet personal needs rather than to worship and serve God as an inclusive community (3:12-16).
The Colossian heresy was of the same order of seriousness as the Galatian heresy, except that it centered about the Person of Christ, rather than about salvation by works versus salvation by grace. Paul’s answer to the heresy lay not in extended argument, but in a positive presentation of the preeminence and all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s theology is always practical. He is more interested in doing theology than in merely knowing it. Thus, the book has two main sections: doctrine (Chaps. 1-2) and exhortation (Chaps. 3-4). In the doctrinal section, Paul develops his high doctrine of Christology. In the exhortation section, he shows how that union with Christ in His death, resurrection and ascension forms the basis for Christian living. Believers are to adopt God’s perspective by regarding themselves as dead in Christ to sin and alive in Him to righteousness.Get your copy of The Preeminence and All-Sufficiency of Jesus Christ here. To purchase more of our books, visit https://www.strategicpress.org/.
 Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)
 Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? (Hebrews 1:14)
 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a Gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:8)