Because of the rising tide of human philosophies confronting us today, no New Testament book speaks with more relevancy than does the epistle to the Colossians. Not only do we live in an atomic and space age, but in the most technologically advanced age of all time. As in the past, this is a day where, duped by the age-old lie of Satan, man still continues to believe in himself and his ability to solve his problems apart from God as He is revealed in Scripture. Through one avenue or another, man continues to offer his own manmade solutions for the ills of society whether in the form of secular humanism or religious syncretism. But it appears many are becoming discontented over the futility of materialism and somewhat dissatisfied with the idea that life is but a cosmic accident. As a result, many are turning to the New Age movement that has been growing by leaps and bounds. This new movement claims we stand at the brink of an entirely new age of human achievement and potential, one that will unify the world and bring an end to war and an end to hunger through a redistribution of the world’s resources and population control. It will lead to the conservation of the earth’s environment, result in genuine equality among all races and religions and between men and women, and provide a global ethic that will unite the human family. But at the center of this movement is a religious syncretism that rejects the biblical revelation of God as revealed in Christ. According to this movement, Christ is only one of many religious leaders or influences that man may turn to because there are other ways that are equally valid.
Increasingly our generation wants to take religion out of the realm of rational discourse and relegate it to the area of personal preferences and opinions. If there are thirty-one flavors of ice cream, why can we not have similar variety in religions? The gods of the New Age Movement are always tolerant of sexual preferences, feminism, and hedonistic pleasures at almost any cost. Why shouldn’t we each choose a religion that is compatible with our private values? In order to have a meaningful faith, it must agree with our deeply held beliefs. What works for you might not work for me.1
Thus, Colossians is a book that speaks to our cosmic age and to this New Age movement. But let us not miss the fact that this movement has its source in the occult (though hidden under new names) and in Eastern religions that go all the way back to the beginnings of history with the fall of man.
The New Age movement is not new; it is the most recent repeat of the second oldest religion, the spirituality of the serpent. Its impulse is foreign to none of us. The appeal is ancient indeed; its rudiments were seductively sold to our first parents in the garden. Human pride was tickled, and it jumped.2
The New Age movement promotes a belief in monism. Monism is the belief that all is one, that everything is interrelated, interdependent, and interpenetrating. It promotes the hideous idea that humanity, nature, and God are not separate from each other, but are one. As an illustration, Groothius also points out that John Randolph Price is a New Age writer who teaches that everyone should affirm, “I and the Father are one, and all the Father has is mine. In truth I am the Christ of God,” and that he “tars as ‘anti-Christ’ those under-evolved, ignorant ones who deny ‘the divinity of all men’ (pantheism).”3
As evident from this statement by Price, pantheism is at the heart of the New Age movement. It teaches that “all is God.” But their God is not a personal being; he is an impersonal energy, a force or consciousness. Out of this naturally comes another idea. Since all is one and all is God, we too are gods. The goal of the New Age movement is to awaken us to the god who sleeps within us, to teach us to live like the gods we are. The bait on this pagan hook is Satan’s great delusion from the Garden of Eden, the promise of godhood.
Secular humanism taught that “man is the measure of all things.” Now, because of this promise of godhood for men, the New Age movement says with man all things are possible. The New Age worldview is what could be called “a cosmic humanism.”
But as mentioned, the ideas of the New Age movement are not new. It merely repeats Satan’s age-old lie in a new age using euphemisms or new names to hide and remove old associations and stigmas. As will be shown, the heresy confronting the Colossians had certain similarities to the New Age movement of our day. Colossians is God’s polemic and rebuttal to many kinds of delusions and heresies, but it is especially relevant to what we see happening in the world today.
Colossians presents the all-supremacy, the all-sufficiency, the uniqueness, and the fullness of the person and work of Jesus Christ as the God-man Savior, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe and the total solution for man’s needs both for time and eternity. It is a cosmic book, presenting the cosmic Christ: the Creator/Sustainer who is also the one and only Redeemer/Reconciler of the universe.
One of my former and beloved Greek professors at Dallas Seminary, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, had the following excellent summary of the importance of this epistle. In the first of a series of articles entitled “Studies in the Epistle to the Colossians” he wrote:
“Without doubt Colossae was the least important church to which any epistle of St. Paul is addressed.” So wrote Bishop Lightfoot some years ago in one of the finest commentaries on New Testament literature. Colosse had been “a great city of Phrygia,” but it was in the afternoon of its influence and importance when Paul wrote the house-church there. And yet the message to Colosse, so bright with the light of the apostle’s highest Christology, has become amazingly relevant in the middle of the twentieth century. With the sudden and startling intrusion of the space age and its astrophysics, nuclear power, missiles and rockets, the church of Jesus Christ has been forced to relate its Lord and Master to the ultimate frontiers. Colossians, which presents Him as the architect and sustainer of the universe, as well as the reconciler of all things, both earthly and heavenly, provides the church with the material it may and must use. Suddenly the epistle to the little flock in the declining city has become perhaps the most contemporary book in the New Testament library.
The usefulness of Colossians, however, is not a recent phenomenon. The epistle is no late-blooming flower, although its grandeur and brilliance may strike one’s eyes with increasing force in the present time. The Christology and the ethics of the letter are important for all time. It has always furnished a proper antidote to humanly devised schemes of salvation. As A. M. Hunter puts it; “To all who would ‘improve’ Christianity by admixing it with spiritualism or Sabbatarianism or occultism or any such extra, it utters its warning: ‘What Christ is and has done for us is enough for salvation. We need no extra mediators, or taboos, or ascetics. To piece out the gospel with the rags and tatters of alien cults is not to enrich but to corrupt it.’” 4
Its Location: Located about 100 miles east of Ephesus, Colossae was a Graeco-Phrygian city in the Roman proconsular of Asia also known as Asia Minor. It was one of three cities located in the Lycus Valley (Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea) that formed an important trade route, a virtual meeting point between east and west. Colossae was about ten miles from Laodicea and thirteen miles from Hierapolis. At one time Colossae had been a large and populous city, but when Paul wrote to the Colossian church, it had become just a small town in contrast to its nearest neighbors, Hierapolis and Laodicea. From the New Testament record, these two neighboring cities appear to also have contained a congregation of believers (cf. Philemon 2 with Col. 4:16) and are mentioned in Colossians (cf. 2:1; 4:13). Though small, Colossae of Paul’s day was still a cosmopolitan city with different cultural and religious elements that were mingled together. Since God’s concern for His own is never based on human distinctions like size, the Colossian church was still close to the heart of God. He obviously thought it important enough to lay it on the heart of the apostle Paul. Significantly, the letter to this small group of believers became one of the letters of the canon of the New Testament and one of the most important because of what it teaches us regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Its Inhabitants. For the most part, the inhabitants of the area were Gentiles, but there was a considerable quantity of Jews among them. In fact, Barclay wrote, “…we may well put the Jewish population as high as almost 50,000 people. Johnson points out:
Apparently the wool business was particularly attractive to them (cf. Acts 16:14), and this was an important trade in the district. Furthermore, they enjoyed the gay life of Hierapolis. Attention has been called to a bitter Talmudist comment, “The wines and baths of Phrygia have separated the ten tribes from Israel.” Luke bears further testimony to the presence of Jews in the tricities area when he specifically mentions that Phrygians were present in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, presumably worshiping Jews (cf. Acts 2:10).5
Some scholars have questioned the Pauline authorship of this epistle. In fact, Colossians is sometimes taken to be “deutero-Pauline,” which simply means that on the basis of certain allegedly non-Pauline features of vocabulary, style, and theology, Colossians was written by a disciple of Paul, one well versed in the apostle’s theology.6 This will be approached from the external and internal evidence.
Regarding the external evidence, S. Lewis Johnson writes:
There is no historical evidence that the Pauline authorship of Colossians was ever suspect in the early church. Marcion (ca. A.D. 150) recognized the epistle as a genuine letter of Paul. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 190) was the first to use the epistle definitely. The letter was included among the Paulines in the Chester Beatty codex 46, and there is no textual evidence that it ever circulated under the name of any other person. While the available evidence is somewhat scanty, that which we possess argues for the authenticity of the writing.7
1. The problem of different vocabulary: There are those who maintain there are words and phrases that do not occur in the rest of Paul’s letters, but does this really proves anything? Paul was dealing with a special brand of heresy that required in some cases a different vocabulary. Why should we try to restrict an author to his usual vocabulary under all situations. Shouldn’t every author have the right to change his vocabulary according to the need of his subject? The apostle chose his vocabulary in order to deal effectively with his opponents by showing how their religious terms and ideas could only be true in Christ.
Just as David slew Goliath with his own sword and Haman was hung from his own gallows, so are Paul’s opponents vanquished with their own vocabulary, which has been baptized into Christ.8
2. The problem of the theology of Colossians: Some promote the idea that the theology of Colossians advances beyond that of Paul’s other epistles and that it is more cosmological than soteriological, especially for Paul. The idea of Christ as creator and as the fullness of God is too advanced for Paul, at least at this time. We find such ideas in the gospel of John, but that is thirty to forty years later. Barclay responds to this by saying:
First, Paul speaks of the unsearchable riches of Christ. In Colosse a new situation met Paul, and out of these unsearchable riches Paul drew new answers to meet it. It is true to say that the Christology of Colossians is an advance on anything in the earlier letters of Paul; but that is far from saying that Paul did not write it, unless we are willing to argue that Paul’s thought remained forever static, and never developed to meet a new situation.… And in face of a new set of circumstances Paul thought out new implications of Christ.
Second, the germ of all Paul’s thought about Christ in Colossians does, in fact, exist in one of his earlier letters. In I Corinthians 8:6 he writes of one Lord Jesus Christ by whom are all things and we by him. In that phrase is the essence of all that Paul says in Colossians. The seed was there in Paul’s mind, ready to blossom when a new climate and new circumstances called in into growth.9
Regarding this issue Johnson has a timely answer:
It has also been said that the author of Colossians subordinates the soteriological to the cosmological (Francis W. Beare, “The Epistle to the Colossians. Introduction and Exegesis,” The Interpreter’s Bible, XI, 144), or salvation truth to truth about the universe. But the two categories are not parallel. Paul does not subordinate, he extends. He relates the saving truths of Christ’s salvation to a wider sphere (cf. 1:20 ). The reason for this was seen clearly by Lightfoot, who said, “New forms of error bring into prominence new aspects of truth.” (Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, Zondervan, p. 121.) That there was development in Paul’s theological thinking, one may admit readily, but it was a development resting upon the old foundations. He advanced, but he advanced while still abiding in the doctrine of Christ (cf. 2 John 9). One can sympathize with the remark of McNeile: “There are critics who credit St. Paul with no ability to think on a plane other than that of 1, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans” (A. H. McNeile, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament, p. 162). It is revelatory of a deep basic lack of harmony with the mind of Paul to restrict the immense genius of the man. James S. Stewart has put it this way: “Paul was always flinging out scouting parties into unexplored theological territory” (Lecture in New College, Edinburgh, January 19, 1961). New and fresh insights into God’s truth on every page are the rule, not the exception, in the letters of Paul.10
3. The problem of the Gnostic thought in Colossians: It has been advocated that the nature of the heresy facing the Colossians with its Gnostic bent could not have existed until much later. However, scholars have discovered incipient features of Gnosticism present even in pre-Christian movements.
…But the idea of two worlds, the idea of the evil of matter, the idea that the body is a tomb, and that the flesh is evil, are ideas which are deeply woven into both Jewish and Greek thought. There is nothing in Colossians which cannot be explained by longstanding Gnostic tendencies in ancient thought, although it is true that the systematization of Gnosticism came later.11
Paul is clearly the author of Colossians and there is really no reasonable argument against it.
1. It was a Pauline church in that it was indirectly the result of Paul’s ministry.
As far as we know Paul never visited Colossae, at least not at the time he wrote this epistle; he had only “heard” about the church at Colossae (1:4, 9; 2:1). Nevertheless, it was a product of his ministry and beautifully illustrates his commitment to impart his vision of reaching others with the powerful message of the gospel. That this is so is illustrated in the following ways.
First, Paul spent three years ministering the word in Ephesus from the lecture room of the School of Tyrannus. It was during this time all of Asia heard the Word (cf. Acts. 19:8-10, 26; & 20:31). Ephesus had three great attractions that brought people into the city from all parts of Asia. It was a seaport town, a center of commerce, and, with the temple of Diana, it was also a center for idol worship.
Second, while on a visit to Ephesus, a young man from Colossae named Epaphras evidently heard the gospel from Paul and was converted. It appears that he was not only saved, but that he was trained and prepared by Paul to go back and plant a church in his hometown of Colossae (1:7; 4:12).
The story of the establishment of the church at Colossae illustrates an important truth. “God does not always need an apostle, or a ‘full-time Christian worker’ to get a ministry established. Nor does He need elaborate buildings and extensive organizations.”12 Through Paul’s vision for training others for ministry, God took two men and sent them out to reach and build others in Christ in at least three cities of the Lycus Valley.
2. It was essentially a church made up of Gentile believers.
Though there was a large Jewish population in the Lycus Valley, the Colossian epistle suggests that the membership of the church was primarily Gentile: (1) It is suggested by 1:12, 21, 24, 27. (2) There is a scarcity of Old Testament allusions. (3) Vices that were distinctively Gentile are mentioned in 3:5-7. (4) There is almost no reference to the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles that is found in Ephesians, though one might compare 3:11 and 4:11.
3. It was a church facing serious doctrinal and practical problems.
Though the apostle never gives a formal explanation of the heresy facing the Colossians, the chief focus and features of the epistle along with Paul’s arguments show there was a serious threat of false teaching facing the Colossians. This teaching sought to undermine the person and work of Christ and the sufficiency of the salvation believers have in Him. More will be discussed regarding the nature of the heresy.
Several years after the church was established, around A.D. 61-62. Epaphras traveled to Rome to visit Paul during his first Roman imprisonment where he was under house arrest. While he brought some good news regarding the Colossian assembly (1:4, 8; 2:5), it appears his primary purpose for visiting the apostle was to seek aid against certain false teachings that were attempting to eat their way into the Colossian church.
Paul wrote, therefore, to counter this false teaching and sends this epistle to the Colossians by the hand of Tychicus (4:7). In the meantime Epaphras stayed with the apostle, perhaps because he was forced to because of his own imprisonment (Philemon 23, cf. with Col. 4:12), but surely also for instruction and encouragement from Paul.
What was this heresy like? What was the church of Colossae up against?
Scholars are divided concerning the exact identity of the heresy that faced the Colossians since Paul does not identify the heresy or spell out its exact tenets. Whatever, this “…erroneous teaching has normally been described as the ‘Colossian heresy’ and the nature of it has been discussed for more than one hundred years since Lightfoot wrote his important commentary on Colossians in 1875.”13
However, we can determine the features of the heresy by the many allusions, the counter emphases, and by the warnings and teachings of the book. It also seems clear that Paul borrowed certain catchwords and phrases used by the heretical teachers. Some of these Paul filled with biblical content and used them against the heresy itself showing that in reality such ideas can only be found in Jesus Christ because of who He is (His person) and what He has accomplished (His work). Other terms he strongly rejected and totally denounced. Some illustrations are mystery (1:27), fullness (2:9), knowledge and wisdom (2:3), elementary principles or rudiments (2:8), delighting in humility and the worship of angels (2:18), and self-imposed worship (2:23).
From a study of Colossians and from information derived historically, the features of the Colossian heresy fell into at least the following characteristics:
1. As with all heresy, it detracted from the person and work of Christ. It sought to add to His work by calling for human works of religion or asceticism. To counter this, the apostle stresses the divine person and finished nature of the creative and redemptive work of Christ (1:14-22; 2:8-15).
2. It claimed to be human philosophy based on the traditions of men. This philosophy included a Greek form of dualism that believed all matter was evil and that only pure spirit was good. Included was the question, Why is there evil in this world if creation was made by a holy God? Thus, Paul warns us to be on alert to philosophical or religious arguments based on the argument of human tradition that appeals to its antiquity and dignity of the past as a reason for acceptance.14 In other words, this philosophy was based on the empty speculations of man instead of the sure revelation of God (2:8, 18 with 2:3).
3. It contained certain Jewish or Judaistic elements as circumcision (cf. 2:11 with 3:11), rabbinical traditions (2:8), dietary regulations and sabbatical and festival observances (2:16). However, it does not seem to have been the pharisaic Judaism Paul combated in Galatians. It was worse. It was a native Phrygian and cultic variety that was mingled with Eastern or Oriental mysticism. This means it was eclectic or syncretistic. It sought to take a little from all religions.
4. It contained ascetic elements designed to control the flesh (2:20-23). Paul countered this with the futility of such practices against the flesh and by the fullness of the person and work of Christ and the believer’s completeness in Him (1:19-20; 2:9-10).
5. But, and this is very important for today, the heresy confronting the Colossians seems also to have included the worship of angels (2:18). This points to a pagan and mystical element in this heresy. In light of biblical revelation, these angels turn out to be fallen angels or demonic spirits. In the Bible, we find that there are good (angelic) and bad (demonic) spirits. As Groothius accurately points out, “Angels are the ‘messengers’ of God sent to do his will, usually behind the scenes. The Bible never tells Christians to cultivate conscious relationships with angels, although they do visibly appear throughout both the Old and New Testaments.”15
In fact, though God used angels to communicate His word, we are warned against their worship. When John responded to the revelation he received through an angel, the angel responded with the following rebuke:
22:8 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things, and when I heard and saw them I threw myself down to worship at the feet of the angel who was showing them to me. 22:9 But he said to me, “Do not do this! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets, and with those who obey the words of this book. Worship God!” (Rev. 22:8-9)
The exact nature of this angelic worship is debated. Some scholars believe angels weren’t actually worshiped but were simply thought of as guiding spirits and intermediators by which men thought they could worship or contact God.16 Whatever the case, there seems little doubt that in some way, they were advocating occult experiences with these angelic beings or guiding spirits or ascended masters as they are sometimes called in the New Age movement. The goal is to experience some kind of religious fullness and gain contact with God, something that fits with what we see today in advocates of the New Age movement.
6. Finally, it contained and flaunted an exclusivity of mystery, secrecy, and superiority, the element of knowledge for a few elect through some form of initiation by religious experience or religious rites into the mysteries of the cult. This foreshadowed full-blown Gnosticism that would later develop.
As its name would indicate, Gnosticism—the word is related to gnosis, “knowledge”—taught that salvation is obtained not through faith but through knowledge. However, the knowledge, of which the Gnostics spoke, was knowledge acquired through mystical experience and not by intellectual apprehension. It was an occult knowledge that was pervaded by the superstitions of astrology and magic. Moreover, it was an esoteric knowledge, open only to those who had been initiated into the mysteries of the Gnostic system.17
…The Gnostics were the people who were “in the know” when it came to the deep things of God. They were the “spiritual aristocracy” in the church.
To begin with, this heresy promised people such a close union with God that they would achieve a “spiritual perfection.” Spiritual fullness could be theirs only if they entered into the teachings and ceremonies prescribed. There was also a “full knowledge,” a spiritual depth, that only the initiated could enjoy. This “wisdom” would release them from earthly things and put them in touch with heavenly things.18
Paul countered this exclusivity by proclaiming the public and universal nature of the gospel which offers a salvation to all who would believe through faith in Christ (1:20, 23, 28; 3:11). He then went on to show that all believers are complete in Christ who was Himself not only the fullness of deity in bodily form, but the fullness of salvation through whom all believers are reconciled to God (1:19-20; 2:9-10).
From these facts, it seems clear that the Colossian heresy was an eclectic blend of Jewish legalism, Greek philosophic speculation, and oriental mysticism combined together with a Christian flavor or element. In other words, like many of the cults and the eclecticism of today, it wore the mask of Christianity, but it was totally false. It used Christian words and Christian phrases, but with different meanings. It claimed to have something for everybody, but in essence provided only a delusion. It was a satanic deception in the following way: “While at its heart it was a combination of Judaism and paganism, it wore the mask of Christianity. It did not deny Christ, but it did dethrone him. It gave Christ a place, but not the supreme place. This Christian facade made the Colossian error all the more dangerous.”19 In other words, it taught that Christ was insufficient and that one must go beyond Christ into the fullness of what they had to offer. We find the same thing happening today with many of the cults that will likewise use some Christian terminology, but with completely different meanings. All the features found in this cult at Colossae would later be found in full-blown Gnosticism. So it may have been an incipient form of Gnosticism combined with elements of Judaism.
So, what are some things we can learn from this?
1. We see that false doctrine or theology is not only the product of Satan’s deceptions, but it leads one deeper and deeper into his delusions both in theology and practice.
2. There can be no neutrality toward God, the Bible, and Christ for neutrality leads to hostility.
3. There can be no morality and no genuine, lasting, and real humanism or true concern for man without sound theology. The idea that you can have morality without the absolutes of Scripture is a myth, a satanic delusion.
4. Without the absolutes of God’s Holy Word as our foundation, we end up with a world-view that will in some way distort and undermine the being and character of God and His salvation for man in Jesus Christ. The product of this is some from of idolatry, mysticism, agnosticism, pantheism, monism, atheism, or dialectical materialism. When that happens, there is no end to the moral breakdown and degeneracy in humanity for false theology leads to ungodliness.
Do we have any of this heresy today? Yes, we do; and it is just as deceptive and dangerous! When we make Jesus Christ and the Christian revelation only part of a total religious system or philosophy, we cease to give Him the preeminence. When we strive for “spiritual perfection” or “spiritual fullness” by means of formulas, disciplines, or rituals, we go backward instead of forward. Christian believers must beware of mixing their Christian faith with such alluring things as yoga, transcendental meditation, Oriental mysticism, and the like. We must also beware of “deeper life” teachers who offer a system for victory and fullness that bypasses devotion to Jesus Christ. In all things, He must have the preeminence!20
The theme is the fruitful and effective power of the gospel message, a message that heralds the supremacy or preeminence, headship, and the sole sufficiency of Christ to the church, which is His body. In this little book, we see Paul’s “full-length portrait of Christ.”21 Christ is the object of the Christian’s faith (1:4), but why? Because He is God’s Son (1:13), the Redeemer (1:14), the very image of God (1:15), the Lord of creation (1:15), the head of the church (1:18), the fullness of salvation (1:19), the Reconciler of the universe (1:20), the One who contains all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3), the standard by which all religious teaching is judged (2:8), the fullness of God, undiminished deity (2:9), the One under Whom all power and authority is subjected (2:10), the Victor over all the cosmic powers (2:15), the reality of the truth foreshadowed in Old Testament types and figures, regulations and rituals (2:17), the One exalted and enthroned at the right hand of God in heaven (3:1), the One in Whom we are complete and in Whom our life is hidden, protected, and kept (2:10; 3:3), the One by Whom our new life will be gloriously manifested at His coming again (3:4), and it is through Him and because of our new life in Him that we ought to put away our old manner of life from which we have been marvelously saved (3:5f).
Is it any wonder that Charles Wesley wrote: Thou, O Christ, art all I want, More than all in Thee I find.
The purpose in writing Colossians was threefold: (1) to express Paul’s personal interest in the Colossians (1:3, 4; 2:3), (2) to warn them against reverting to their old pagan vices (cf. 3:5ff.), and (3) to counteract both the theological heresy and its practice within the church at Colossae (2:4-23). Paul counters the false theology with sound Christology and then spells out the practical outworking of this in the everyday life of the believer.
He was writing to correct the effects of the religious theories and speculations of the Oriental minds of the ancients concerning (1) man, sin, and salvation, (2) the effect of this on Christology—the person and work of Christ, and (3) the practical behavior of the church.
False theology always leads to wrong behavior and there are at least two main reasons for this: (1) it is futile to deal with man’s condition in sin (cf. Col. 2:23), and (2) it is faithless or bypasses God’s solution for man’s sinful condition through Christ. False theology always contains a wrong view of God, man, sin, and salvation.
Colossians is just as relevant today as it was in the day when Paul wrote the epistle. The names of the heresies have changed along with many of the religious and philosophical ideas, but certain elements are always there in the vain imaginations of man, and to these, no matter what the religious or humanistic idea being promoted in society, Colossians speaks loud and clear. This historical relevance is one of the marks of inspiration. Wiersbe has an important word regarding the relevance of Colossians for our day:
The church today desperately needs the message of Colossians. We live in a day when religious toleration is interpreted to mean “one religion is just as good as another.” Some people try to take the best from various religious systems and manufacture their own private religion. To many people, Jesus Christ is only one of several great religious teachers, with no more authority than they. He may be prominent, but He is definitely not preeminent.
This is an age of “syncretism.” People are trying to harmonize and unite many different schools of thought and come up with a superior religion. Our evangelical churches are in danger of diluting the faith in their loving attempt to understand the beliefs of others. Mysticism, legalism, Eastern religions, asceticism, and man-made philosophies are secretly creeping into churches. They are not denying Christ, but they are dethroning Him and robbing Him of His rightful place of preeminence.22
The Parliament of the World’s Religions met in Chicago in 1993. The parliament met to unify the world’s religions, to probe, to try to understand other religious heritages, but above all, they met to unify and break down the barriers that separated the various religions of the world. But what place did it have in the more than 700 workshops that were held in during the eight-day conference? Lutzer, who attended to get a feel for what was being taught and believed writes:
…At times He was variously admired, quoted, and favorably compared to other religious teachers, ancient and modern. He was seen as one more stage in the evolutionary development of religion; indeed, He was a very necessary and important stage, but He was only one enlightened man among many. It was noted that in our day He is overshadowed by others but that He should be admired for being the man for His times. A special man for His times.
Except for one or two speakers (one said of Him, “He didn’t even know the world was round”), Christ was thus revered for His contribution in the history of religion. He was even described by some as a revealer of God, a man who had achieved the highest degree of enlightenment. Others allowed that He was the Master of Masters, the one who shows us the way; the one who is to be loved and followed. But alas, He was only one among many others. Though He was respected, He was not worshiped.
What I saw and heard in Chicago is a microcosm of your school, business, and community. The people who live next door and your associates at work most likely believe that it doesn’t matter what god you pray to because every deity is ultimately the same deity shrouded in a different name. According to the 1993-94 Barna research report, nearly two out of three adults contend that the choice of one religious faith over another is irrelevant because all religions teach the same basic lessons about life (George Barna, Absolute Confusion, [Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1993], 15.).23
Let us not forget that Christians were killed in ancient Rome under Caesar, not because they worshiped Jesus, but because they would not worship Jesus and Caesar.
…Various religions covered the whole Roman world. One such was the cult of Mithras, a popular Persian form of Zoroastrianism which had reached Rome by 67 B.C. Nobody cared who worshiped whom so long as the worshiper did not disrupt the unity of the state, centered in the formal worship of Caesar. The reason the Christians were killed was because they were rebels.…24
The early church rejected all forms of syncretism because they were convinced that Jesus alone was God and the only way of salvation. Colossians firmly stresses this truth. Thus, as with the early church, so the church must not tolerate the syncretism of our day. We can tolerate genuine pluralism, the idea that the religions of the world can peacefully co-exist, but not syncretism, the idea that the beliefs of various religions can be mindlessly combined. Our society today wants a tolerance that mindlessly accepts all beliefs. This kind of tolerance is unacceptable to the Bible-believing Christian, or at least, it should be. There are two kinds of tolerance that are necessary, however. As Lutzer points out,
Let me be clear that tolerance can be defined in two legitimate ways. As mentioned in the first chapter, legal tolerance is the right for everyone to believe in whatever faith (or none at all) he wishes. Such tolerance is very important in our society, and we as Christians should maintain our conviction that no one should ever be coerced into believing as we do. Freedom of religion should not only be retained in Western democracies but promoted in other countries as well.
Second, there is social tolerance, a commitment to respecting all men even if we vigorously disagree with their religion and ideas. When we engage other religions and moral issues in the ideological marketplace, it should be with courtesy and kindness. We must live in peace with all men and women, even with those of divergent faiths, or those who have no faith at all. We don’t need any more self-righteous Christians who piously judge others without the humble admission that we are all a part of a fallen human race; we are all imperfect and we are all created in the image of God. Tolerance, like patience, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
But the tolerance of which I speak—our national icon, if you will—is something quite different. This is an uncritical tolerance that avoids vigorous debate in the quest for truth. This new tolerance insists that we have no right to disagree with a liberal social agenda; we should not defend our views of morality, religion, and respect for human life. This tolerance respects absurd ideas but will castigate anyone who believes in absolutes or who claims to have found some truth. This tolerance, someone has said, includes every point of view except those points of view that do not include every point of view. This is tolerance only for those who march in step with the tolerant crowd.
This new god is our one absolute, the one flag still deemed worthy of our honor. This kind of tolerance is used as an excuse for perpetual skepticism, for keeping any religious commitment at arm’s length; it is also a doorway for being vulnerable to accept the most bizarre ideas. Truth, it is assumed, might exist in mathematics and science, but not in religion or morality. The pressure to accept this uncritical tolerance is growing every year.25
The book of Colossians is about the supremacy of the person of Christ. He has no equal among the religious leaders of the world religions because He and He alone is God’s Son and the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Indeed, He is “the image of the invisible God, the sovereign and preeminent one among all creation” (Col. 1:15). He has no equal or anyone who even comes close. On the basis of the finished work of Christ on the cross and His glorious resurrections, Peter said, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Therefore, as we study this vital epistle, let us take heed to Paul’s warnings against adding to or subtracting from the person and work of Jesus Christ:
I. Doctrinal: The Person and Work of Christ (1:1–2:3)
A. Introduction (1:1-14)
1. Paul’s Greeting to the Colossians (1:1-2)
2. Paul’s Gratitude for the Colossians (1:3-8)
3. Paul’s Prayer for the Colossians’ Growth (1:9-14)
B. The Supremacy of the Person of Christ (1:15-18)
1. His Relation to God (1:15)
2. His Relation to Creation (1:16-17)
3. His Relation to the Church (1:18)
C. The Supremacy of the Work of Christ (1:19–2:3)
1. The Plentitude of His Work (1:19-20)
2. The Purpose and Application of His Work (1:21-23)
3. The Propagation of His Work (1:24–2:3)
II. Polemical: The Heretical Problems in Light of Union With Christ (2:4–3:4a)
A. Exhortation Against False Teaching (2:4-8)
1. Exhortation Regarding the Methods of False Teachers (2:4-5)
2. Exhortation to Progress in the Life of Faith (2:6-7)
3. Exhortation Regarding the Philosophy of the False Teachers (2:8)
B. Instruction of the True Teaching (2:9-15)
1. The Believer’s Position in Christ (2:9-10)
2. The Believer’s Circumcision (2:11-12)
3. The Believer’s Benefits (2:13-15)
C. The Obligations of the True Teaching (2:16–3:4)
1. Negative: Emancipation from Legalistic and Gnostic Practices (2:16-19)
2. Negative: Emancipation from Ascetic Ordinances (2:20-23)
3. Positive: Aspirations for the Heavenly Life (3:1-4a)
III. Practical: The Practice of the Believer in Christ (3:4b–4:6)
A. In the Everyday Walk (3:4b-17)
B. In the Home (3:18-21)
C. In Servant/Master Relationships (3:22–4:1)
D. In Prayer and Witnessing (4:2-6)
IV. Personal: The Private Plans and Affairs of the Apostle (4:7-18)
A. His Special Representatives (4:7-9)
B. His Personal Salutations (4:10-18)
1 Erwin W. Lutzer, Christ Among Other gods, A Defense of Christ in an Age of Tolerance (Moody Press, Chicago, 1994), 22.
2 Douglass Groothius, Confronting the New Age (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., 1988), 17.
3 Groothius, 16.
4 S. Lewis Johnson, “Studies in the Epistle to the Colossians, Part I,” Bibliotheca Sacra, (Dallas Theological Seminary, Vol. 118, #471, July 1961), 239.
5 Johnson, 240.
6 Murray J. Harris, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, Colossians & Philemon (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1991), 3.
7 Johnson, 241-242.
8 Johnson, 242.
9 William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 2nd ed., 1959), 122.
10 Johnson, 243.
11 Barclay, 121.
12 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Complete (Victor Books, Wheaton, Ill., 1981), 9.
13 Peter T. O’Brien, Word Biblical Commentary, Colossians, Philemon, gen. ed., Glenn W. Barker, NT. ed., Ralph P. Martin (Word Books, Publisher, Waco, Texas, Vol. 44), xxx.
14 O’Brien, xxxii.
15 Groothius, 36.
16 O’Brien, xxxiii, 143.
17 Curtis Vaughn, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, New Testament, Frank E. Gaebelein, gen. ed. (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1976-1992), electronic media.
18 Wiersbe, 10-11.
19 Vaughn, electronic media.
20 Wiersbe, 13.
21 Vaughn, electronic media.
22 Wiersbe, 18.
23 Lutzer, 11-12.
24 Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Fleming H. Revell Co., Old Tappan, NJ, 1976), 24.
25 Lutzer, 29-30.
26 Part of the outline used here is taken from an outstanding series of 12 studies by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson in Bibliotheca Sacra, “Studies in the Epistle to the Colossians,” beginning with Vol. 118, # 471.