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Before You Read Colossians…

January 11, 2010

It happened on the Night Bus.  I was a college freshman.  As they say in college football, I was a “true” freshman.  We had dropped off all the teens and adults after the Sunday Night service, and now it was just us college guys.  And as was our custom, we all got up to preach, one at a time. 

I’ll never forget one particular message on that night.  One of the upper classmen invited us to turn in our Bibles to Colossians 2:21.  For the next twenty minutes, we were barraged with quotes and applications of “touch not, taste not, handle not.”  He talked about our girlfriends, and he said, “touch not, taste not, handle not.”  He talked about drugs, and he said, “touch not, taste not, handle not.”  He talked about liquor, and he said, “touch not, taste not, handle not.”  He discussed our roomates’ clothing and shoes and ties and money, and he said, “touch not, taste not, handle not.”  He brought up every forbidden thing, every tabboo that he could think of, and he said, “touch not, taste not, handle not.”

That’ll preach, right?  Right.  Meanwhile, I found myself sneaking a peak, in between stories, at my Bible.  Imagine that.  I kept it open to Colossians 2.  Something seemed strange.  Didn’t seem quite right, what he was saying.  I read verse 20…

Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) 

…and I thought to myself, “something ain’t right here.”  In my true freshman mind, it seemed to me that Paul was saying just the opposite of what this preacher, a college senior, was preaching. 

Lo and behold, Colossians 2 is in fact saying just the opposite.  Which reminds us of the necessity of context.  If we would truly understand the Word, we must understand the context.  Of course, the Scriptural context is always, shall we say, helpful and stuff.  But we should also consider the historical and cultural setting of a book as well.  

Paul did not plant the church in Colosse.  In fact, he had not even visited the city.  All that he knew of the brethren in Colosse came from the report of Epaphras, their pastor (1:7).  When Epaphras declared their love in the Spirit, Paul was stirred up to pray for them, “desiring that they might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding…”  The word “knowledge” in verse 9, and repeated in verse 10, is the Greek word epignosis, which goes beyond mere knowledge (gnosis), and indicates a fuller, deeper knowledge.

Paul desired fuller knowledge for the Colossians in order to counter the pernicious teachings of the Gnostics, who claimed a special, deeper and fuller knowledge given to them personally and uniquely.  It is amazing to note how much of the New Testament was written to counter Gnostic error.  The Gnostics considered themselves to be the enlightened, and some of the early church fathers mention Simon Magus as a leader of that cult.  Interestingly, we still find much of Gnostic error prevelant in our day.  It was no accident that so much of the New Testament is written to address it. 

Gnostics believed that they had a higher knowledge of God, one that came independently of God’s revelation in the Scriptures.  As a result of this faulty starting point, the Gnostics proclaimed much heresy and false doctrine, what Paul called “philosophy and vain deceit” in Colossians 2:8.  This philosophy and vain deceit was “after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”  Naturally then, Gnostic philosophy was as empty as a clean dinner plate.  In Christ, Paul said, “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

Gnostic error included the teaching that Jesus Christ was not fully God and fully man, but that “the Christ” came on him at some point, and left him later.  I am summarizing as briefly as possible here.  Gnostic teaching is much more in depth, especially concerning the person and nature of Christ, then what I have mentioned.   Paul addresses their false views of Christ very thoroughly in Colossians.  Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature (Colossians 1:15).  “By him were all things created…” (v. 16).  “…he is before all things, and by him al things consist” (v. 17).  “For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell” (v. 19).  “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (2:9).  These are just a sampling of verses in which Paul accomplishes a dual purpose — answering Gnostic error and giving the Colossians a full knowledge of Christ.

The Gnostics also taught that the material world was corrupted and that sin came through contact with the material world.  Similar to the Pharisaic idea that corruption came through eating with unwashed hands, the Gnostics believed that sin came from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.  Because of their view of sin, Gnostics either became extremely ascetic and spartan in their lifestyle, or else extremely licentious and Epicurean in their principle.  Those who lived by the Epicurean principle of “if it feels good, do it” believed that since sin came through contact with the material world, and contact with the material world was unavoidable, one might as well live it up.  Those who took a spartan principle believed that if sin came through contact with the world, contact with things in the material realm must be avoided as much as possible.  This form of Gnosticism majored in self-denial, in keeping of feasts and the law, and in the Essene principle of “touch not, taste not, handle not.” 

The Gnostic principle of ascetism along with a sprinkling of Essene teaching greatly influenced the believers at Colosse.  For that reason, Paul takes the first two chapters and the beginning of the third to address this error.  Colossians 2:18-23 gives a wonderful refutation of the vain philosophy of Gnostic asceticism.  But, lest the Colossian believers think that their liberty gives them license, Paul concludes the book with instructions to “mortify your members (the true contaminants) which are upon the earth” (Colossians 3:5).  In the remainder of the book, Paul exhorts them to holiness and godliness in their living. 

Of course, this is just a thumbnail sketch of the issues at stake in Colosse.  We trust that the remainder of the month will flesh out some of these issues a little further.

  1. Thomas Balzamo
    January 11, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Great post!

  2. January 11, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    The text of the college senior is a favorite for many “preachers” who neglect to study their Bibles before yelling at their congregations.

    I posted on this same text almost three years ago now: https://jackhammer.wordpress.com/2007/01/29/you-mean-thats-not-biblical/

  3. January 13, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    I’m excited to follow this study through Colossians this month!

  4. January 18, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    What’s the fullness of the Godhead? Is that saying that Jesus is fully God or is

    it talking about something else?

  5. January 19, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Colossians 1:19 says that it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell. Colossians 2:9 says that in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. That is probably the most concise and complete statement of the dual nature of Christ. Christ is fully man, and at the same time fully God.

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