Monday, August 17, 2020

A Letter to the Colossians

"To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace and peace to you from God our Father" (Colossians 1:2).

Centuries before Paul’s day, Colossae had been one of the leading cities of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). By the first century A.D., however, Colossae had been eclipsed in power and importance by the neighboring towns of Laodicea and Hierapolis. During Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus, the Word went out to all the neighboring towns and cities (Acts 19:10), and a believer named Epaphras carried the Gospel to Colossae (Colossians 1:7–8) and also to Hierapolis and Laodicea (Colossians 4:13).

Colossae had a large Jewish population, and a form of the Judaizing heresy became a major problem in the Colossian church. While Paul was under house arrest in Rome, Epaphras visited him there and asked for help. At about this same time a bond-servant of a leading member of the Colossian church fled to Rome, found his way to Paul, and was converted. Paul wrote a letter to the master, Philemon, asking him to take this slave Onesimus back as a brother. A comparison of the names in Philemon 1 and 23 with those in Colossians 4:9–17 makes it almost certain that the letter to Philemon was sent along with the letter to the Colossians.

During the nineteenth century, many scholars became fascinated with early gnosticism and proposed that the heresy being spread in the Colossian church was a form of gnosticism. The Gnostics despised the body and held that only the “spiritual realm” really mattered. The Colossian heresy bears some resemblance to this idea, but is actually a form of the Judaizing heresy. The Colossian heretics held to strict rules about food, religious days, and circumcision. Like many Jews of the day, they were fascinated with angels and had an elaborate and speculative angelology. They emphasized the Jewish oral law tradition and its supposed “secret treasures of wisdom” that had not been written down, and about which Gentiles knew nothing.

These heretics were similar to the Jewish ascetic cults of the day, like the Essenes. Outside of Judaism, these same notions circulated among the pagan religions of the day, and in the second century A.D. emerged as the Gnostic movement. This gnosticism, however, arose a century after Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

Gnosticism infiltrated the church quickly. Perhaps its most dangerous element is the idea of “secret treasures of wisdom.” Adaptations of that heresy continue today as people look for subjective and untestable messages from God. Commit to hearing God speak only where He has spoken, in His creation and in His Word.