This paper was written for a class on Paul's prison epistles. As I recall, the assignment was to write a paper on a problem passage in the epistle.

NOTE: The footnotes are at the bottom of this document. One of these days, I'm going to figure out something better to do with them.


Paul's epistle to the Colossians was written to correct a heresy which had invaded the church at Colossae. Although the exact nature of this heresy cannot be known with certainty, it is possible to get some idea of its nature from Paul's references to it and from the particular aspects of Christian doctrine which he emphasizes in order to combat it.1

The Colossian heresy consisted of two elements. The first, and most predominant, was that of Judaism. This was not the Pharisaic Judaism which Jesus faced in His ministry, which stated that entrance into the Kingdom was obtained by following the Mosaic law as interpreted by the Pharisees. Nor was it that form of Judaism which confronted the apostles early in their ministry, which stated that a Gentile, in order to be saved, first had to "be circumcised after the manner of Moses" (Acts 15:1), in other words, that he had to become a Jew before he could become a Christian. The Judaic element of the Colossian heresy was rather of the form which had earlier invaded the church at Galatia. This form of Judaism stated that although one was saved through faith in Jesus Christ, one is sanctified through keeping the law of Moses.2

The second element of the Colossian heresy was a pagan philosophy, frequently said to be Gnosticism. Systematic Gnosticism, however, did not exist until the second century A.D. Therefore, while there were some characteristics of the Colossian heresy which later appeared in systematic Gnosticism, the Colossian heresy cannot properly be labelled as Gnosticism. The earlier tendencies towards Gnosticism, such as are evident as having occurred at Colossae, are normally labelled "pre-Gnostic" or "incipient Gnosticism."3

While there were two elements to this heresy, it appears that there was only one heresy. There are at least two reasons for believing this. First, there is no indication that Paul had more than one set of antagonists in view. Second, the two elements are so closely interwoven in his refutation that it is impossible to separate them.4

It seems probable that the alliance between Judaism and incipient Gnosticism was formed prior to its alliance with Christianity. Lightfoot has demonstrated that the Jewish sect of the Essenes had some beliefs similar to those of the later Gnostic system and the incipient Gnosticism evident in the epistle to the Colossians. He also demonstrates the possibility that some Christians who were saved out of an Essenic background could have been responsible for instigating the Colossian heresy.5

The Colossian heresy, therefore, appears to be a syncretism of Judaism and incipient Gnosticism applied to Christianity. The Colossians were apparently being taught that although they were saved through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, their practical sanctification was to be obtained through adherence to this syncretistic system of doctrine and practice. Some of the characteristics of this system will be pointed out during the course of the exposition.

The passage can be outlined as follows;

I.   Exhortation to Continue as Instructed (6-7)
II.  Refutation of Heretical Doctrines (8-15)
III. Refutation of Heretical Practices (16-17)


I. Exhortation to Continue as Instructed (6-7)

Verse 6

"As ye have, therefore, received Jesus Christ the Lord, so walk ye in him." The Greek word for "received," parelabete, implies something that was received from transmission.6 It thus implies an apostolic "tradition" as opposed to "the tradition of men" (verse 8).7 They are to walk in Christ in accordance with the true apostolic teaching which, as regarding the Christian's walk, is clearly revealed in Romans 8. The concept of "walking after the Spirit" is contrary to the "tradition of men" which the false teachers had expounded to the Colossians.

Verse 7

"Rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding with thanksgiving." Two figures are used here, that of a tree and that of a building. By "rooted" we are to understand the stability which a tree receives from its roots, and by "built up in him" we are to understand the stability given to a building by its foundation. The Colossians are thus exhorted to be stable, "firmly established in the faith," not paying heed to those who pervert what they have been taught. Regarding the last clause of this verse, "abound- ing with thanksgiving," Bruce has stated, "Thus firmly based on the indubitable facts of divine revelation, they would have ample occasion to overflow with gratitude to God."8

II. Refutation of Heretical Doctrines (8-15)

Verse 8

"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." Having encouraged the Colossians to be stable in their belief of the truth, Paul now warns them against being carried away as captive prey (this is the true meaning of sulayogon).9 According to Lightfoot10 and Bruce,11 the structure of the Greek indicates that "vain deceit" qualifies "philosophy," so that Paul is not condemning philosophy in general, but rather the "philosophy of vain deceit" which was being presented to the Colossians. Such a philosophy is "after the tradition of men," and has no support from divine revelation. In addition to being after the tradition of men, it is "after the rudiments of the world". "Rudiments" here refers to "elementary teachings," that is, this philosophy has been developed by the inferior intellect and godlessness of our present world system (cosmos), and is not "after Christ." He thus denies that the system which they have embraced is one authored by Christ.12

Verse 9

"For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily." The word "for" connects verses 9-15 with verse 8. These verses give the reason why they should not allow themselves to be carried away by these strange teachings. In other words, verses 9-15 are a refutation of this doctrinal system.

This verse reveals something of their belief in intermediaries. This was a doctrine of later Gnosticism, and it is interesting to note that Paul even uses the same word as the later Gnostics--plaroma. The Gnostics, and apparently the Colossian heretics also, represented the "fulness of the Godhead" (that is, the totality of the divine nature, powers and attributes) as dispersed among several spiritual agencies, of which Christ was only one.13 Paul here refutes this doctrine by stating that this plaroma dwells (katoikei -- has its fixed abode) in Christ.14

The word "bodily" should not be restricted to the incarnation. Lightfoot states, "The indwelling of the pleroma refers to the Eternal Word, and not to the incarnate Christ: but somatikos is added to show that the Word, in whom the pleroma thus had its abode from all eternity, crowned His work by the Incarnation."15 "Bodily" therefore does not describe the body of Christ's incarnation, but rather the fact that the "fulness of the Godhead" has its abode in one Being, and that Being is Christ.

Verse 10

"And ye are complete in him, who is the head of all principality and power." The word for "complete" is peplaromenoi, which has the same root as plaroma and is literally "filled full."16 As the fulness of deity resides in Christ, so His fulness is imparted to believers.17 There is no need to go through intermediary beings to attain fellowship with the Father. Christ is all we need.

Paul's statement that Christ is "the head of all principality and power" was probably intended to counter the false angelolgy of the Colossian heretics. The principalities and powers refer to different ranks of angels, which the heretics had apparently put above Christ. They may have taught that Christ introduced Christians to these angels, which in turn led them up to the invisible God.18 But, says Paul, the angels are not above Christ, but He is above them.

Verse 11

"In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ." This verse shows a Judaistic element of the heresy, which was the necessity of circumcision. These teachers at Colossae taught that in order to be sanctified one must be circumcised. But those in Christ have been "circumcised with the circumcision made without hands." Simply by being in Christ they have put off the flesh. Their union with Christ has fulfilled the reality of which circumcision was the symbol.

Verse 12

"Buried with him in baptism, in which also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead." Water baptism is not in view here, but baptism in the sense of identification with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection, as in Romans 6.19 This concept of walking "in newness of life" (Romans 6:4) because of our "faith of the operation of God" is parallel to our "putting off the body of the sins of the flesh" in verse 11. Both refer to the fact that we are progressively sanctified through our identification with Christ, not through obedience to the Jewish rite of circumcision.

Verse 13

"And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he made alive together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses." For the Colossians, who were largely Gentiles, their literal uncircumcision was symbolic of their former alien- ation from the people of God,20 and of their unchastened carnal mind.21 But since in Christ all their trespasses have been forgiven, God has made them alive together with Christ. This is what baptism (in the sense of identification) does for them, as we saw in verse 12. Since all their trespasses have been forgiven due to their union with Christ, circumcision is unnecessary.

Verse 14

"Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross." This verse explains that God does not hold the law against Christians. He has forgiven us of all our trespasses against that law (verse 13). Paul's reference to "nailing it to his cross" probably alludes to the custom of Rome in nailing to the cross of crucifixion a copy of the law that had been broken.22 Christ paid that penalty for the broken law when He died on the cross for us, so that the "handwriting of ordinances that was against us" no longer stands to condemn us before God.

The fact that Paul mentions the Mosaic law indicates that the Colossian heretics taught that Christians were in bondage to that law.

Verse 15

"And, having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it." The reference here is to evil spirit beings, who have the power of death. Christ, in rising from the dead, triumphed openly over these principalities and powers.23 Paul is thus reaffirming his earlier statement (verse 10) that Christ is superior to the angels.

The possibility exists, however, that Paul was refuting a doctrine which appeared in the more systematized form of Gnosticism of the second century. This was the doctrine of emanations. The Gnostics of the second century believed that God, being absolutely good, could not create anything corruptable, such as matter. They therefore developed the concept that God created other spiritual beings, or emanations, which in turn created other beings. As the emanations got farther away from God, they possessed less and less of the divine element, until finally they were able to contact matter, and creation resulted.24 The evil angels, because of their activities, would have been considered farther removed from God, and Christ perhaps even farther removed since He actually became flesh. This verse, in showing Christ's triumph over evil spirits, would have refuted the belief that He was inferior to them. But there is some question as to whether or not the Colossian's incipient Gnostic beliefs were developed to this extent. As stated above, this may just be another affirmation of Christ's superiority over the angels.

III. Refutation of Heretical Practices (16-17)

Verse 16

"Let no man, therefore, judge you in food, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day, or of the new moon, or of a sabbath day." Since the doctrinal system of the heretics has been shown to be false, there is no reason to be troubled by their practices, either. The practices listed in this verse are predominantly those of Judaism. The reference to drink, however, may go beyond Old Testament Judaism, since the law contained very few prohibitions respecting drinks. It may be, however, that the rigor of the Colossian false teachers, like that of their Jewish prototypes the Essenes (if Lightfoot's theory is accepted), went far beyond the injunctions of the law. It is probable that they forbade wine altogether, and perhaps even food which originated from animals.25

Verse 17

"Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ." The Greek word here translated "body" could also be translated "substance", as in the NASV, thus rendering the verse more explainable. The Old Testament practices listed in verse 16 are shadows, but Christ is the substance, the reality which casts those shadows.26 To turn to these practices would therefore be going backwards. Why follow the shadows when they should be following Christ Himself?


Paul, in this passage, has encouraged the Colossian believers not to be led astray by these false teachers by explaining that their doctrinal system is erroneous and that the practices which they demand of them are not necessary. As far as we can surmise from this passage, the heresy being taught to the Colossians was that in order to be sanctified to God, they had to be circumcised (verse 11), keep the law of Moses (verses 14,16), and approach God through a heirarchy of spiritual beings (verses 9-10,15) of which Christ was one of the lower (verse 10).


1Bruce, pp. 165,166.

2Pentecost, lecture notes, Bible 331, Fall 1980.

3Guthrie, p. 546n.

4Lightfoot, pp. 74,75.

5lbid., pp. 81113.

6lbid., p. 176.

7Bruce, pp. 226,227.


9Lightfoot, p. 178.


11Bruce, p. 230,231.

12Lightfoot, p. 181.

13lronside, p. 77.

14Lightfoot, p. 181.

15Ibid., p. 182.

16Ironside, p. 78.

17Bruce, p. 233.

18Ironside, p. 79.

19Ibid., p. 87.

20Ellis in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 1341.

21Lightfoot, p. 186.

22Ironside, p. 90.


24Lightfoot, p. 78.

25Ibid., p. 193.

26Ironside, p. 91.


Bruce, F.F. and Simpson, E.K. Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.

Ellis, E. Earle, in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, ed. by Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.

Gray, James M. Christian Workers' Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1915.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970.

Ironside, H.A. Lectures on the Epistle to the Colossians. Neptune, Loizeaux Brothers, 1929.

Lightfoot, J.B. Saint Paul's Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959.

Pentecost, J. Dwight. Student's lecture notes for Bible 331, Fall 1980. Dallas Theological Seminary. Unpublished.

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