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)
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.
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.
The fact that Paul mentions the Mosaic law indicates that the Colossian heretics taught that Christians were in bondage to that law.
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.
"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. 81Ä113.
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.