The Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians
Introduction to the Epistle
The epistle of St. Paul the apostle to the Colossians is one of four epistles which he wrote during his first period of imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:30); two of the other three (both of which were the subjects of previous Bible studies), were sent to the Ephesian and Philippian believers, while the third was sent to his friend Philemon, an affluent Colossian, concerning Onesimus, his runaway slave.
The Church of Colosse
Colosse was a small town in Asia Minor, in the region of Phrygia, situated about 160 kilometers east of Ephesus; it lay in the valley of the river Lycus, along with the neighboring, larger, towns of Laodicea (Col. 2:1, 4:13, 15 & 16 and Revelation 1:11 & 3:4) and Hierapolis. Having been destroyed by an earthquake during Nero's reign, all that remains of Colosse is ruins. In addition to its predominantly Gentile population, Colosse was home to many oriental Jews (from Palestine and Mesopotamia) who had fled the persecution of Antiochus III (the Great) and his son Antiochus IV, seeking refuge in Phrygia, about two hundred years before the advent of Christ; some of those Jews became affluent Colossians.
Despite his having passed through Phrygia during his second missionary trip (Acts 16:6) and at the beginning of the third (Acts 18:23), it is clear from this epistle that St. Paul did not personally found the Church of Colosse - he neither visited it nor did he see the Colossians a single time (Col. 1:4, 7-9 &2:1). Rather, that Church's founder is most probably Epaphras, a believing Colossian, whom St. Paul refers to as, "....our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf." (Col. 1:7, and 4:12, 13). However, St. Paul was behind that church's establishment during the three years he spent in Ephesus (Acts 20:31) in his third missionary trip, since the word of God spread throughout the entire region: ".....so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks." (Acts 19:10) Colosse is likely the smallest town/church to which St. Paul addressed an epistle, thereby securing its position in Christianity's history.
About the Epistle
The epistle states in its introduction (Col. 1:8) that during St. Paul's imprisonment, Epaphras relayed to him the Colossian church's news. While some of this news was uplifting, and resulted in St. Paul giving thanks to the Lord (Col. 1:4-8 and 2:5), the rest heralded disturbing, threatening, tendencies, against which he had warned: "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ." (Col. 1:8) It was imperative that those concerns not materialize, and that believers be protected from their consequences.
The epistle did not address explicitly the misguidance which plagued the Colossian mission; however, the first two chapters allude to its contents, by emphasizing the supremacy of the Person of Christ "in Whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Col. 2:3) Those two chapters also accentuate Christ's divinity, incarnation, and atoning death, and that in Him lies all believers' hope of forgiveness and peace with God(1). This suggests that the heresies which crept into Colosse not only attacked Christ's divinity as the supreme Creator, but also tried to diminish His stature and omniscience, thus challenging His sublime sufficiency to all believers. Those heresies reflected the pagan Greek philosophical thinking which dominated the Gentile world at the dawn of the New Testament. According to second century writers of the Christian Church, this way of thinking was the prelude to what eventually became known as Gnosticism. This was superimposed over the Jews' quest to impose Judaism on novice believers; in other words, the latter were required to incorporate, in their religious practices, the scriptural dictates of the Old Testament Law(2). Gnosticism, with a Jewish flavor, thus became the essence of the then prevailing heresies.
While false teachers purported to preach at a higher philosophical plane than Christian thinking (Col. 2:4, 8 & 18), St. Paul, in denouncing such thinking, purposely used some of its terminology such as: knowledge, wisdom, understanding, mystery - but in the converse Christian sense(3).
In the second part of the epistle (the third and fourth chapters), St. Paul took care not to neglect to urge the Colossian believers to advance and to be fruitful in the new life as befitting those who have risen with Christ from the dead, to liberate themselves from the old sins, to adopt Christian virtues, and to walk together in love and forgiveness; this, while observing those commandments specific to men, women, children, slaves, and masters.
While in prison, St. Paul dictated this epistle to his Asian disciple Tychicus (Acts 20:4), who also delivered it to the Colossians; St. Paul refers to him as, "....a beloved brother, faithful minister, and fellow servant in the Lord,...." (Col. 4:7) Accompanying Tychicus was Onesimus, "...a faithful and beloved brother..." (Col. 4:9), Philemon's runaway slave from Colosse; he had come to St. Paul in Rome, accepted the faith, became a servant of the Lord, and grew to be St. Paul's brother and partner. Onesimus eventually delivered a message to his previous master, Philemon, in which St. Paul urged Philemon to forgive and accept Onesimus not as a slave, rather, as a brother in Christ. (Philemon 16)
The word "Gnosticism" originated from the Greek "gnosis" which means "knowledge." Traditionally, this was the label atttached to the heretical philosophy which appeared towards the end of the first century; it then spread during the second century and subsequent years(4). Gnosticism was not confined to Colosse - it spread to other places. This is evident from other pastoral epistles in which St. Paul cautions against being puffed up with knowledge (1 Cor. 8:1), "the wisdom of words" (1 Cor. 1:17), the "doctrines of demons," "profane and old wives' fables" (1 Timothy 4:1 & 7), "profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge," (1 Timothy 6:20) and "profane and idle babblings" (2 Timothy 2:16)
At the outset of Christian evangelism, this philosophy was intermingled with the Jewish influence and attempts to impose those scriptural practices to which St. Paul referred as "Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth," (Titus 1:14) and which encompassed the defilement of objects, and abstaining "from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving." (1 Timothy 4:3)
Gnosticism extolled both knowledge and the notion that the human mind can absorb everything. Furthermore, and during an age where the art of astrology prevailed, Gnosticism believed in the effects of stars, planets and the powers of the universe on human lives, as well as in the influence of spirits (Col. 1:16, 20 and 2:15), and worship of angels (Col. 2:18) as other intermediaries between God and men [thus detracting from the work of Christ the only God, the "One Mediator between God and men" (1 Timothy 2:5), and the only "Advocate" (1 John 2:1)].
According to this philosophy, only the spirit is good, and matter is essentially evil and decayed; also, believing in the timelessness of matter, it follows that the universe was not created from nothing, rather, from this decaying matter. This reasoning gives rise to the following corollaries:
1. Because God is spirit, He must be good; consequently, it is impossible for Him to interact with evil matter. In other words, He is not the Creator of all. The Gnostics (or the "well-informed") offer the following solution to this paradox: God established an unbroken chain of emanations, each one deviating slightly from God. The last one in the chain - the one which is most distant from God, knows the least about Him, and carries maximum enmity with Him - is the one who touched matter, and formed the universe from it (St. Paul's teaching, which diametrically opposes this misleading doctrine, states that everything was created through the Son, Who is in the Father, and Who both knows and loves the Father.)
2. Given that Christ is the Son of God, it would be impossible for Him to be incarnate in decaying human flesh; in the Gnostics' challenge of the reality of Christ's incarnation, they contend that what appeared to men as the body of Christ was in fact an imaginary ethereal body, so that when He walked, He never left any footprints. Such thinking, consequently, negates the reality of the Cross, and the reality that Christ has reconciled us "in the body of His flesh through death." (Col. 1:22)(5)
3. Since matter is evil, it follows that the body is also evil; hence, we can only deal with the body in one of two opposing ways: we either subjugate, despise, and punish it by practicing austerity, strict asceticism, excessive hunger, and denying its desires including abstention from marriage (1 Timothy 4:3), or we can consider that the body is unimportant, and therefore we can give full reign to its desires and whims. This logic leads to the conclusion that there is no difference between a chaste person and a pervert. Undoubtedly, Gnosticism found fertile ground in the pagan environment whose religious rites were mixed with depravity and sexual permissiveness.
(To be contd.)
(1) The epistle to the Colossians is not unique in addressing Christ's supremacy; in his first epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul refers to the sublime Person of Christ as".....one Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom are all things, and through Whom we live." (1 Cor. 8:6)
(2) St. Paul refers to this in the epistle as "...a shadow of things to come..." (Col. 2:17). This was in the context of food, drink, festivals, new moons, sabbaths (Col. 2:16), unclean things, "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," (Col. 2:21), circumcision (Col. 2:11), and those attributes which St. Paul had previously resisted (Galatians 2:14-16), and which he had invoked before the first council of Jerusalem, calling upon the elders and apostles to absolve "....those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God.....," (Acts 15:19) These arguments, however, are sometimes attributed to Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, and to some of the sophist (mystic) Jewish rabbis who prevailed among the Jews of Alexandria at that time, and whose doctrine concerning sabbaths and festivals was known as divine wisdom or "theosophy", which later became known as the Kabala teachings.
(3) St. Paul had previously pointed this out in his first epistle to the Corinthians: ".....not the wisdom of this age...." (1 Cor. 2:6), "....which the Holy Spirit teaches...." (1 Cor. 2:13), and that ".... we have the mind of Christ" instead of the wisdom of speech (1 Cor. 2:16).
(4) Some believe that Gnosticism spread long after the days of St. Paul; this implies that he did not author the epistle, and that it was written after his time. This is inconsistent with the fact that the epistle clearly bears St. Paul's name, along with the names of those who shared in the Colossians' service, and who provided the link between St. Paul and the Colossians. However, it is well-known that Gnosticism is generally rooted in Greek culture (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle).
(5) In the two epistles which he wrote towards the end of the first century, St. John referred to the heresies which denied Christ's incarnation (1 John 4:2 & 3 and 2 John 7); he described anyone who preached such heresies as "not of God," "a deceiver," and "an antichrist."
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