The Bible - Book by Book - Colossians
Pastor Chris Diebold
I’m a big fan of fondue. For some reason, a meal designed to use up old cheese and stale bread really hits the spot for me. This is especially so when a really good mixture of cheese is thrown into the melting pot. However, sometimes I’ve gone too far, and the mixture of cheeses did not work out so well.
A melting pot of ideas can run the same risk. Sometimes it can be enriching. Other times, it can turn into heresy. So it was for the Colossians. In this town that was a melting pot of ideas, “the word of the truth, the gospel” (1:5), had been corrupted. Epaphras, the local evangelist, was sent to Paul in order to get advice on how to defend against the Colossian heresy (1:7-9). Thus, Paul’s letter to the Colossians was born.
So what did Paul have to say to the church at Colossae about their heresy? And what exactly was the heresy that troubled them? We can address these questions by looking at each of the three major sections in turn. Let’s begin with Paul’s introduction.
First, in 1:1-14, Paul greets the church, gives thanks to God for them, and offers a prayer to God on their behalf. While such things as greetings, thanksgivings, and prayers may only seem like ordinary ways to begin a letter (and they are), Paul means to reinforce the truth of the gospel message over against the Colossian heresy. As he gives thanks to God for this church, he mentions a standard triad of nouns, faith, hope, and love.
But unlike in other letters, Paul grounds the faith and love of the Colossian church in their hope. He also emphasizes the security of that hope, which is “laid up for you in heaven” (1:5). When the supremacy of Christ is denied, hope can waver because there is no longer a firm foundation for the promises of eternal life. But Paul reminds the Colossians that their hope is secure because it is stored up in heaven. He also reminds them that this hope is theirs because they have heard of it in “the word of the truth, the gospel” (1:5). The rules and rituals connected with the Colossian heresy, therefore, ought not to shake the faith of the believers. After all, faith is grounded in a heavenly hope.
Then, in 1:15-2:23, Paul dives into the major theological issue at the heart of the heresy, namely a denial of Christ’s supremacy. This section begins with what scholars call a “Christ Hymn.” Colossians 1:15-20 is a poetic affirmation of the supremacy of Christ as both creator and redeemer. Importantly, these verses establish Christ’s supremacy at the two highest water marks of any religion, the creation of the cosmos and its redemption.
The effect is to require a rebuttal from any alternate hypothesis that still desires to adopt the external wrapper of Christian religion. From those who seek to require angel worship (cf. 2:18), Paul wants to know why worship should go to something that has been created by Christ, who is not a creature but “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (1:15). From those who seek to require asceticism and adherence to many rules (cf. 2:16), Paul wants to know why earthly inventions should be followed when through Christ’s death he has reconciled “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (1:20). This reconciliation includes an enlivening of our hearts and the forgiveness of our trespasses such that the rituals of Judaism have been fulfilled in Christ (2:13-15). The supremacy of Christ is an effective remedy against a melting pot of false doctrine.
Finally, in 3:1-4:18, Paul applies this theological corrective to the lives of the Colossian Christians. He urges the Colossian Christians to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (3:1). Seeking heavenly things puts to death what is earthly, e.g. “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (3:5). But it is not simply putting off; seeking heavenly things includes putting on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12).
And these things must be practiced in the community of faith (3:15-17). Seeking heavenly things means, among other things, “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (3:16). It also must be practiced in the home (3:18-4:1), for the same Lord who is head of the church is also Lord over the home. By this emphasis on both the church and the home, Paul continues his attack against any denial of the supremacy of Christ. To truly overcome this heresy, the church at Colossae has to practice what it preaches.
As Paul ends this brief but powerful letter, even his final greetings bear witness to the supremacy of Christ. In contrast to the Colossian heresy, which sought to make distinctions based on rules and rituals, Paul emphasizes the unity of believers from different backgrounds. Since Christ is creator and redeemer of all things, his redeeming work unites Jews and Gentiles in a common salvation (cf. 4:10-14), and that makes it possible for Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus who is called Justus, who are “the only men of the circumcision among [Paul’s] fellow workers, to greet warmly this predominantly Gentile church. Praise God for the supremacy of Christ and his reconciling work!