Colossians 2 - Refuting the Colossian Heresy
A. Paul’s conflict.
1. (1-3) Paul wants the Colossians to know the depth of his conflict for them all.
For I want you to know what a great conflict I have for you and those in Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
a. For as many as have not seen my face in the flesh: Apparently, Paul had never visited Colosse himself. Most of them had never seen his face in the flesh. Even as Paul’s authority extended to those he had never met, those who had never seen his face, so it extends to us.
b. What a great conflict I have for you: This great conflict was inside Paul (I have for you). It wasn’t that Paul fought with others about the Colossian Christians. Paul described his spiritual warfare and heartfelt care for the Colossians as a great conflict. What was Paul concerned about?
i. Paul was concerned about their enthusiasm, because he longs that their hearts may be encouraged. Paul knew that discouraged, downcast Christians are easy prey for the world, the flesh, and the devil.
i. Paul was concerned about their unity, because he wanted to see them being knit together in love. The unity wouldn’t come from coercion, but love.
iii. Paul was concerned about their understanding, because he watned them to gain all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God. The term mystery of God is used in a few different ways in the New Testament. Here, Paul uses the term regarding the character and person of God - something we could not know unless it were revealed by Him.
c. All the riches of the full assurance of understanding: For Paul, real riches were found in the believer’s full assurance. Many Christian lack this assurance in their lives. If you have it, you are rich. If you don’t have it, you are poor.
i. Many lack full assurance about the character of God. Is He really good and loving? The answer is in knowing God as He is revealed in His word.
ii. Others lack full assurance of their salvation. Is my Christian life for real? The answer is in knowing that at the bottom line, our salvation rests in God, not in us.
d. Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge: It is clear that the whom is Jesus. He has all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
i. With this, Paul refutes some of the bad teaching troubling the Colossian Christians. They were influenced by teachers who told them to seek the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, but not to seek them in Jesus. Paul says, “You will only find all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Jesus. He has them all.” It’s not wrong to seek after wisdom and knowledge; but we must seek it all in Jesus.
ii. In that sense, the Colossian heresy was a “preview” of gnosticism - those who prized gnosis (knowledge), which were presented as deep, hidden esoteric mysteries.
2. (4) Paul’s concern and warning.
Now this I say lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words.
a. Lest anyone should deceive you with persuasive words: Those who taught these dangerous things among the Colossian Christians were very persuasive. The lure of “hidden” and “deep” wisdom and knowledge can be strong, but still deceptive.
b. Many today deceive with persuasive words by quoting a whole bunch of Bible verses. But the Devil himself quotes Scripture. We must compare everyone’s teaching against all of God’s Word.
i. We should all have the spirit of the Bereans (Acts 17:11), who compared even the teaching of Paul with Scripture.
c. Lest anyone should deceive you: It might sound simple, but deceivers are deceivers. They won’t announce their false doctrine as false doctrine, and it will often be similar enough to the truth to be dangerous.
3. (5-7) Encouragement for walking with Jesus.
For though I am absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the steadfastness of your faith in Christ. As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving.
a. Rejoicing to see your good order: Paul, even though he is harsh with the Colossian heresy, does not consider them on the brink of hell. He is blessed by what is happening among the Colossians, and wants to encourage them as well as warn them.
b. As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him: This is a wonderful rule for Christian living. We cannot perfect in the flesh what was begun in the Spirit, so just as you received Jesus, walk in Him in the same way. The simple things of the Christian life provide continual the reliable spiritual fuel for growth. We always have to be reminded of the things we have been taught.
i. The Colossians were in danger of having started in the simplicity of Jesus, but thought they could be perfected by the search for hidden wisdom offered by the dangerous teachers among them.
c. So walk in Him, rooted and built up: Paul uses a curious combination of metaphors. As Christians, we walk, but we are also rooted, and we are also built up. The metaphors are somewhat mixed, but the message is clear: be established and keep growing.
B. Paul warns against and exposes the Colossian heresy.
1. (8) Don’t get cheated by what comes from man.
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.
a. Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy: The false teaching among the Colossians was marked by an emphasis on philosophy and empty deceit. Most of all, it was according to the tradition of men. It had the stamp of man on it, not God.
b. According to the tradition of men: So much in the church today shouldn’t be seen so much as good or bad. It is simply a distraction because it comes according to the tradition of men, not from God’s revealed Word.
i. Traditions and philosophical or psychological speculations may have merit in their own right. But they are dangerous when presented as even close to equal in authority to what God has said in His Word.
ii. Lest anyone cheat you: When we take what man says as even near in authority to what God says, we get cheated.
c. According to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ: The ancient Greek word translated basic principles is stoicheia. It simply refers to basic, elementary knowledge.
i. “A stocheion was originally a line of things; for instance, it can mean a file of soldiers. But it came to mean the ABC, and then any elementary knowledge.” (Barclay, in his commentary on Galatians)
ii. The basic principles of the world are simply not according to Christ. The way that the world thinks and acts is contrary to the way that Jesus thinks and acts.
iii. False teaching is according to these basic principles, and not according to Jesus. In Jesus, we die to the basic principles of the world (Colossians 2:20).
2. (9-10) Why the message of Jesus is the only authority.
For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.
a. In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead: This is a dramatic, airtight declaration of the full Deity of Jesus. Since all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Jesus, He cannot be a halfway God or a “junior god.”
b. All the fullness of the Godhead bodily: The false teaching among the Colossian Christians was something like an early form of the Gnostic heresies that would come later. These Gnostic heresies made a radical separation between the spiritual and the material. That’s why Paul needed to make it clear that all the fullness of the Godhead was in Jesus bodily, not in some strange, mystical sense. John also dealt with this false teaching in 1 John 4:2-3 and other passages.
i. A false teaching related to this in the early church was called Docetism, which claimed that Jesus had no actual human body, He only seemed to have one. Another false teaching was called Cerinthianism, and it said that the “Jesus the man” was separate and distinct from “the Spirit of Christ.”
c. And you are complete in Him: This can only be true because Jesus is truly God. If He were not God, we couldn’t be complete in Him. Anything that says we are not complete in Him also takes away from the deity of Jesus.
i. You are complete in Him: Paul says that this is a fact to be enjoyed, not a status to be achieved.
d. Head of all principality and power: In many New Testament passages, principality and power describes ranks of angelic beings, either faithful or fallen angelic beings (Romans 8:38; Ephesians 1:21; Ephesians 3:10; Ephesians 6:12). Therefore, Paul here declares Jesus’ authority over all spirit beings. The false teaching among the Colossian Christians emphasized these lesser spirit beings, but Paul makes it clear that Jesus if far above them.
3. (11-12) Paul relates circumcision to baptism.
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
a. In Him you were also circumcised: Most of the Colossian Christians were Gentiles who had never been physically circumcised. Paul assures them that they were indeed circumcised in a spiritual sense, which is even more important than physical circumcision.
i. The Colossians Christians had to deal with a whole smorgasbord of false teaching. Not only did they have wrong ideas about Jesus, but they also had wrong ideas about things like circumcision. Apparently, they were being taught that they had to be circumcised to be right with God. Paul makes it clear that they are circumcised, by putting off the sins of the flesh.
b. By the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism: Paul says these Gentile Christians find their true circumcision in their baptism. Christians don’t need to be circumcised, they need to be baptized.
i. Even the Old Testament acknowledges that there are two types of circumcision: one of the body and one of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16 and 30:6). Sincere baptism shows that the real “circumcision of the heart” has taken place.
c. Buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God: Baptism answers circumcision, but it doesn’t illustrate it. But baptism does illustrate our identification with the death and resurrection life of Jesus. We were buried with Jesus, and buried under the water. We are also raise with Him, and raised up out of the water.
i. Because Paul makes a connection here between circumcision and baptism, some - especially Reformed theologians - say that just as babies were circumcised, so babies should be baptized. But this presses Paul’s analogy between circumcision and baptism too far, and neglects examples of baptism in the Book of Acts. Paul doesn’t say that circumcision and baptism are the same thing, but that circumcision is unnecessary for salvation because we are identified in Jesus and baptized to show that.
4. (13-15) What happens when a person is born again.
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.
a. And you, being dead: This is the place of every person before they are raised with Him through faith in the working of God as Paul described in Colossians 2:12. Before we have new life, we are dead. Before a person comes to new life in Jesus, they are not a sick man who needs a doctor; they are dead people who need a Savior.
b. Being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh: Before we have new life in Jesus, we are dead in our trespasses. A trespass is a specific kind of sin: overstepping a boundary. We are dead because we overstep God’s boundaries in our sin and rebellion.
c. He has made alive together with Him: We can’t make ourselves alive, but God can make us alive together with Jesus. We can never be made alive apart from Jesus.
i. The new birth (made alive) and cleansing (forgiven you all) go together as features of the New Covenant, as prophesied by the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:25-27) and the New Testament (John 3:5).
ii. Having forgiven us is the ancient Greek word charizomai - a verb form of the ancient Greek word charis (grace). We are forgiven by grace.
d. Having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us: The handwriting of requirements has in mind a list of our crimes or moral debt before God, a debt no imperfect person can completely pay. But it can be taken out of the way, by payment from a perfect man, Jesus Christ.
i. What a glorious picture! My “rap sheet” or “debit ledger” is settled forever, because Jesus nailed it to the cross.
ii. Martin Luther told once how Satan laid heavy condemnation on him because of his sins. Luther told Satan to list them all, and even reminded him of some he had forgotten. Then he told Satan to write across the whole list “paid in full by the blood of Jesus Christ,” and Luther rejoiced in the payment Jesus made.
iii. Having nailed it to the cross: We must keep that list up on the cross. We get into trouble when we take that list down from the cross and carry it around. We forget that it was all settled at the cross.
e. Having disarmed principalities and powers: Another aspect of Jesus’ work on the cross is that He disarmed principalities and powers. These ranks of hostile angelic beings (Romans 8:38; Ephesians 1:21; Ephesians 3:10; Ephesians 6:12) don’t have the same weapons to use against Christians that they have against those who are not in Jesus.
i. Against the believer, what weapons do demonic spirits have? They are disarmed, except for their ability to deceive and to create fear. These are effective “weapons” that aren’t tangible weapons at all.
ii. Demonic spirits only have power towards us that we grant them by believing their lies. The weapons are in our hands, not theirs. We will one-day see how afraid they were of us.
iii. Perhaps Satan, for a moment, thought that he had won at the cross. But Hell’s greatest “victory” was turned into a defeat that disarmed every spiritual enemy who fights against those living under the light and power of the cross. The public spectacle of defeated demonic spirits makes their defeat all the more humiliating.
5. (16-17) Applying the truth of Jesus’ victory in light of the Colossian heresy.
So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.
a. So let no one judge you: The opening “so” is important. It connects this thought with the previous thought. Because Jesus won such a glorious victory on the cross, we are to let no one judge you in food or in drink or in other matters related to legalism. A life that is centered on Jesus and what He did on the cross has no place for legalism.
b. Food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come: The Old Testament law had certain provisions that are done away with in Jesus, regarding such things as food and sabbaths. It isn’t that those laws were bad, simply that they were a shadow of things to come. Once the substance - Jesus Christ - has come, we don’t need to shadow any more.
i. The point is clear: days and foods, as observed under the Mosaic Law, are not binding upon New Covenant people. The shadow has passed, the reality has come. So for the Christian, all foods are pure (1 Timothy 4:4-5) and all days belong to God.
ii. Christians are therefore free to keep a kosher diet or to observe the sabbath if they please. There is nothing wrong with those things. However, they cannot think that eating kosher or sabbath observance makes them any closer to God, and they cannot judge another brother or sister who does not observe such laws.
6. (18-19) Paul rebukes the strange mysticism of the Colossian heresy.
Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God.
a. Taking delight in false humility and worship of angels: False humility and the worship of angels were parts of the false teaching troubling the Colossian Christians. That is why Paul touches back on these themes throughout the letter of Colossians. The antidote for both of these false teachings is simply more of Jesus, exalting Him above angels, and realizing that because of His finished work there is nothing to take pride in.
b. False humility and the worship of angels do not make anyone more spiritual. Instead, holding fast to the Head (Jesus) makes us truly spiritual.
i. Intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head: This describes the spiritual arrogance of these false teachers and those who believed what they taught. There are few things more dangerous among Christians than spiritual pride and arrogance.
c. From whom all the body: When these strange, mystical movements arise in the church, they don’t appeal to the whole body, but only to a few “elite” Christians. This is not the cause under the Head, Jesus - He wants all the body to grow together.
d. Grows with the increase which is from God: This is God’s plan for church growth. We remain faithful and connected to Jesus (our Head), and God gives the increase.
7. (20-23) Paul rebukes the essence of legalism.
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations; “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using; according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.
a. Do not . . . do not . . . do not: This is a perfect description of legalistic religion, defined more by what we don’t do than by what we do. Christianity is a moral religion; it does have clear moral boundaries. But at its foundation, Christianity is a religion of positive action.
b. The key to living above legalism is remembering that you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world. Our identification with Jesus in both His death and resurrection (as mentioned before in Colossians 2:12) becomes the foundation for our Christian life, instead of our law-keeping.
c. According to the commandments and doctrines of men: One aspect of legalism is that the doctrines of men are promoted as the laws of God.
d. These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom . . . but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh: We might regard this as the greatest indictment against legalism in the Bible. At the bottom line, legalism’s rules have no value in restraining the indulgence of the flesh.
i. All your legalistic rules may have an appearance of wisdom - but they have no real value. Legalism doesn’t restrain the flesh; it feeds the flesh in a subtle, powerful way.
ii. Spurgeon wrote of “a carnal repentance - a repentance that is of the flesh, and after the manner of the sinful nature of men. In this repentance the depravity of the heart remains the same in essence, though it takes another form of showing itself. Though the man changes, he is not savingly changed: he becomes another man, but not a new man. The same sin rules in him, but it is called by another name, and wears another dress. The stone is carved into a more sightly shape, but it is not turned into flesh. The iron is cast into another image, but it is not transformed into gold. This carnal repentance is caused by fear. Does not every thief repent of robbery when he is convicted and sent to jail? Does not every murderer repent of his crime when he stands under the fatal tree?” This kind of legalistic, fear-filled living is a dark parody of the true Christian life.
iii. Self-imposed religion is man reaching to God, trying to justify himself by keeping a list of rules. Christianity is God reaching down to man in love through Christ.
©2001 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission.