The Epistle to the Colossians (2)
Tom Wilson, Levin, New Zealand
Paul had never visited Colosse and wanted to tell the believers something of himself and his calling so that they might better understand his motivation.
His was a ministry of involvement. He wasn't just a mouthpiece for God; his whole life was given to his calling. Although he had never seen many of the Colossians he felt deeply for them. He looked upon his present sufferings (the letter was written from prison) as part of his service.
Possibly, too, there were those who felt ashamed of associating with a prisoner, even for the gospel's sake. He therefore sought to bring them alongside himself before delivering the stern message on his heart.
His Sufferings, 1. 24
What he suffered was much more than imprisonment. Yet all that had happened was allowed by God. By writing of 'filling up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ' he was not inferring that the work of the cross was in any way deficient. Rather, the Lord was working, and suffering with him 'for His body's sake, which is the church'.
There is a tremendous thought here. When believers suffer in the service of Christ, the Lord Jesus actually identifies Himself with what they are going through. Perhaps Paul was thinking of his encounter on the Damascus road and the Lord's words, 'Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?' Up to that point Paul was still in unbelief, hence his question, 'Who art Thou, Lord?', Acts 9. 4, 5. In what sense, then, could he be persecuting Christ? The previous verses tell us: in coming to Damascus, 'breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord', and purposing to 'bring them bound unto Jerusalem', vv. 1, 2, he was actually persecuting the Lord Himself. Our Lord Jesus Christ is so identified with believers that He is afflicted with them when they endure hardship on His account.
The path of discipleship is one of suffering. This is implicit in our Lord's call to one who in the end rejected Him, 'Come, take up the cross, and follow me', Mark 10. 21. Neither was that suffering to be a once-for-all experience. On another occasion He told the disciples, 'If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me', Luke 9. 23.
As Paul suffered in the service of the gospel, as the Colossians suffered, and as every believer suffers, so our Lord Himself suffers. Paul regarded this association as a cause for rejoicing!
His Ministry, 1. 25-29
Paul calls his ministry a 'dispensation', or 'stewardship'. The thought is that his apostolic work had been specially entrusted to him and that God had equipped him for his task. This gives an insight into the way he understood his calling. He bad to 'fulfil ('fill full' Newberry) the word of God by making the message known. In one sense by Paul's ministry the word of God was 'filled up': there was no more to be added to it.
God has a purpose for every believer, and when He calls us to His service we are responsible as stewards to fulfil our own commitment. It is not an option, but an obligation to be discharged.
Paul's message from God was 'the mystery', a truth hitherto unknown but now revealed. He spoke of 'the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory'.
The thought is again one of identification: Christ is in the hearts and lives of all who are truly His. That oneness brought the responsibility for making the message of 'warning' and 'wisdom' known to 'every man' ('everyone') so that we may 'present (them) perfect ('mature', 'complete') in Christ Jesus'. His was no gospel of easy-belief; his aim was that those who received Christ should 'grow up into Him in all things', Eph. 4. 15.
The work of Christ in the believer starts at conversion but it does not end there. A gospel divorced from the local church, with converts left stranded outside the fellowship of believers, is not the New Testament plan.
New believers need fellowship and teaching if they are to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. This was included in the purpose for which Paul laboured; it was, he said, 'His working, which worketh in me mightily'.
We may often feel that there is little response to our witness but let us remember that the work is essentially His, not ours.
His Exhortation, 2. 1-7
Paul ends this rather personal section about his ministry by speaking of his feeling for the saints at Colosse and neighbouring Laodicea, as for all believers whom he had not known personally. He had 'great conflict' in prayer that they might be strengthened and bound together in love, that they might come to a 'full knowledge' (Newberry) and understanding of the mystery of God. Such maturity could only come from a deepening relationship to the Father and to Christ in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
At this point the Apostle is preparing the ground for his denunciation of wrong teaching among them, the exponents of which claimed to be moving on to a deeper knowledge than that which had been made available to them through the gospel. But, says Paul, what truth can be greater than all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge made known in the Father and the Son?
He concedes that these wrong teachers were using persuasive arguments. But the believers were to remain steadfast against such intrigues. Faith is a continuing process. After 'receiving' Christ, they had to 'walk' in Him. The experience of conversion gives place to a life of faith. After planting there must be rooting, deep in the soil of the new life in Christ. Changing the figure, he said they must be built up on the foundation already laid, Christ Himself. This was not merely a theoretical matter; if they 'walk' in Christ then they would become stable, unaffected by error, and full of thanksgiving.
There are many who oppose the truth today, teaching what they perceive to be a superior wisdom. But how can we move beyond God Himself, the Father and the Son? What 'truth' is there apart from God? When He is the substance and focus of our lives there is perfect peace born out of truth, as revealed by the Holy Spirit in God's Word. By that word all heresies are exposed and believers' lives overflow with thanksgiving to the Giver of this rich 'inheritance of the saints in light', 1. 12.
The Apostle is now ready to direct himself to the 'Colossian heresy'. The section from verses 8 to 23 is invaluable because it gives insight into the characteristics and teachings of Gnostics who were to become such a destructive element among the churches.
Human Philosophy and Deceit, 2. 8
These false teachers were 'spoilers', making a prey of the believers. Philosophy, their stock in trade, has been defined as 'the investigation of causes and laws underlying reality'. Like Pilate they were asking, 'What is truth'? And with Pilate they were coming to wrong conclusions. Gnosticism in its embryonic form (Gk. gnosis, knowledge) was already at work among the believers.
Ultimately these people were to declare that Christ was less than God, that redemption was not complete in Christ, and that God was surrounded by angels who were to be worshipped. Christ, they said, was but one link in the chain leading to this angel-worship. At the time of writing, however, it is unlikely that all this had fully developed. Because of the wisdom given to him, Paul foresaw the incipient danger, hence his earlier emphasis on the Person and work of Christ, 1. 15-23. His was, in contrast to theirs, the highest possible view of the One who was ail that they questioned, and much more.
Their approach was surreptitious and, we would judge by the Apostle's earnest tones, some were already being taken in by the deception, accepting teaching based on humanist and religious traditions without foundation in Scripture.
Mention is made of 'the rudiments of the world' which is rendered by some 'elemental spirits of the universe'. These were demons which under Satan are the source of every error aimed at undermining the person and work of Christ.
How can such people and their teaching be of God when they are opposed to His revelation in Christ? Plainly, they are 'not after Christ'.
All Fulness in Christ, 2. 9, 10
This succinct, sublime restatement of his earlier passage is the cornerstone of all Divine truth: all the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ. Furthermore, we have been filled full, 'filled up' (Newberry) in Him! He is also the Head over every principality and power, which is a clear reference to angels which these false teachers put above Christ. They have it altogether wrong, he says, for Christ must be supreme because He is God.
Here is the 'wisdom' from above. What evil effrontery that they should claim a wisdom superior to that of God incarnate, of whose fulness every true believer has received!
Three Wrongs Exposed, 2. 11-23
Paul aimed to expound the truth from both positive and negative standpoints. Having stated the positive side he moves on to the negative by exposing three misconceptions which, if unchallenged, could undermine the assurance and confidence of the believers.
Legalism, vv. 11-17
Here was the Jewish component in the Colossian heresy. It involved the rite of circumcision, which apparently at that stage was being promoted by the false teachers who possibly borrowed it from the Judaisers, cf. Rom. 2. 29; Gal. 1. 14.
Paul refutes the belief that God still requires circumcision as a religious rite. Christians have a spiritual, not a physical, circumcision. Our faith is in our identification with Christ, symbolised by believers' baptism, this being an outward testimony to oneness with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. The Law, including circumcision, ('handwriting of ordinances that was against us') no longer applied. It brought condemnation, whereas Christ has freed us from the curse of the Law by being Himself made a curse. Such legalism therefore has no rightful place among believers. The shadows of Old Testament ritual have been replaced by the substance in Christ.
Mysticism, vv. 18, 19
The Gnostic practice of worshipping angels gave an appearance of false reverence, of self-abasement ('humility'). But in actual fact they were substituting angels for the Lord Himself (similar to the way Roman Catholics today claim mediation through Mary instead of Christ alone). This is not humility of mind, but pride. It is not spiritual, but carnal, i.e. 'vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind'.
Verse 19 is a reminder of the Church's position as the body of Christ, subject to Him as Head, growing with the increase of God, uniquely portrayed in local assemblies which today seek to be solely determined by the word of God.
Ascepticism, vv. 20-23
Alongside legal and mystical abuses, Paul places the religious idea being promoted among the Colossians, and all too common today, that God wants us to be subject to man-made rules, 'touch not; taste not; handle not'. These were ordinances designed for effect, which in fact robbed believers of their joy and freedom in Christ. Asceticism does nothing to check the self-indulgent desires of the flesh. Only Christ by His indwelling can do that.
As we survey these early Church problems, they have much to teach us who are so near to the end of the age. What Paul taught the Colossian saints still applies today. By his agents Satan will do anything he can to rob us of our confession of the deity, glories, centrality and achievements of our Lord. Using the world and the flesh he will, if allowed, shackle us with legalism, distract us by mysticism and distress us through asceticism. May we never for one moment forget that we are 'complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power'.