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How to Read the Bible Book by Book: Colossians

Colossians 2:8-9: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.”

I am a peacemaker at heart, so one of the things that has always bothered me is conflict in the church. It would be nice if it could be avoided, and in many cases, the things that we fight over really can be avoided. However, one of the perennial challenges that any church faces is false teaching that arises from within the church. We expect such things to come from outside the church. After all, the world is the world, and we should not be surprised that there are major philosophical difference between christians and non-christians. But to have opposition arise from within the church, that is the worst kind of problem. Such challenges have to be met, but it is not much fun to meet them.

Many of Paul’s letters address such issues, and the letter to Colossians is no exception. Colossians is one of the few letters of Paul that is written to a church that he did not plant. He never visited there, as far as we know, and he is not directly responsible for the origination of that church. However, even though he was not directly responsible, he may have been indirectly responsible. While Paul was in the city of Ephesus, he began a school there that lasted for several years. Because of his teaching and training in that school, the gospel spread throughout much of Asia Minor through various men.

One such man was Epaphras, whom Paul will mention in Colossians 1:7. It appears that he was trained in Paul’s school in Ephesus, and then left to begin the church in his home area of Colossae. As we noted, Paul has never been there, but perhaps he kept close correspondence with Epaphras about how the church was developing. It may have been in such a correspondence that Paul learned about the problems that arose in that church. Apparently, there were men who began to teach a religious system that was a hybrid of Jewish and Pagan practices. Like Judaism, it seemed to emphasize legalistic obedience and the following of distinctive customs (like the Sabbath and Circumcision), but like many Pagan religions of the time, it also had an element of mysticism and asceticism. People were encouraged to deny themselves certain things that God had given us to enjoy, and they were encouraged to have ecstatic visions involving celestial beings.

It is strange sometimes how religious systems can mix, but things are little different today. Someone is always coming up with a religious scheme that they think is the secret key to the universe. It is based in human pride and achievement, as all false religions are. Unfortunately, the church must always be vigilant against such heresies, for they pop up from time to time.

One other element needs to be mentioned about the religious systems in Colossae. Apparently, this new system denied the deity of Christ. We may see early hints of gnostic thought in this where physical matter was considered to be evil and corrupt, therefore it was assumed that Christ could not be both human and divine. The divine cannot enter corrupted human nature. All these things and more were becoming a problem in Colossae.

So why is Paul writing this letter? He is writing it to address these emerging problems. He may have never been there, but because of his status as an apostle, his teaching carried weight. No doubt Epaphras talked about Paul from time to time, so he was not unknown to most of the congregation. The letter of Colossians is Paul’s attempt to address the problem of false teaching.

Like many of Paul’s letters, Colossians has a doctrinal section and then a section on practical living in light of the doctrine he has taught. Paul begins the letter in 1:1-14 with thanksgiving and prayer, which is his custom, and in the prayer he asks that God will fill the Colossian Christians with the knowledge of God’s will so that they may live a life worthy of the calling they have received. The emphasis on knowledge is not to be missed. In today’s culture, much of the emphasis is on practice, especially the practice of love, which is very important. But love must be combined with truth. The Christian faith is not just about kindness, it is about true knowledge of God along with love and kindness.

Beginning in 1:15 Paul then begins to build his doctrinal case. He opens with a reflection on the supremacy of Christ as the Son of God. Paul is working directly against the idea that Jesus was a created being rather than the eternal Son of God. The emphasis here is on how the Son is preeminent in creation, how all things were created through him, and for him. God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ, and through Christ to reconcile creation to himself. At one time, those who are now believers in Colossae had been alienated from God, and in fact were God’s enemies. But now they have been reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus the Son. This is the basis of their hope, and it is good for them to remember it.

Based on that reality, in 2:6-23, Paul will then make his primary point of the letter. He wants to make sure that no one takes them captive through hollow and deceptive philosophies, which depend upon human tradition and human wisdom, rather than on Christ. Christ, after all, is the fullness of deity in bodily form. And as Christians, they have been given fullness in Christ. And so, if that is the case, then they have no need for these human derived religious systems. They do not need circumcision because they have the true circumcision of the heart. They do not need the Sabbath, because they have true rest in Christ. They do not need mystical experiences, because in Christ all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found. Christ is in every way sufficient to them and gives them all that they need. So, they are to deny this mishmash of Pagan/Jewish traditions that have been strung together by these false teachers. All these things may have the appearance of wisdom, but they lack any real value in forming inward character. Only Christ through his Spirit can accomplish this transformation.

Based on this teaching, 3:1-4:5 then give practical ways of living out the Christian faith. First, they should set their mind on heavenly things not on earthly things, because Christ is seated at the right hand of God and their life is hidden with Christ in heaven. They should put to death whatever belongs to their old fleshly nature—things like sexual immorality, greed, and various forms of anger and malice. Instead, they are to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, and patience. They are to bear with one another and to forgive one another, just as Christ has forgiven them.

These instructions also have bearing on how they live in their homes. Wives are to submit to their husbands. Husbands are to love and honor their wives. Children are to obey their parents. And for those households who had slaves, masters are to treat their subjects with respect, while the servants are to serve their masters as if they are serving Christ.

Above all they should devote themselves to prayer and be watchful and thankful. Paul asks them to continue to pray for him, so that he may have more opportunity to proclaim the mystery of Christ. The book ends with some personal greetings in 4:7-18.

Even though the letter is fairly short, it is full of Biblical depth and wisdom. It teaches us not to be caught up by human schemes of wisdom and manmade religion. We have everything we need in Christ. He is sufficient to our every need.

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