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by Arno Clemens Gaebelein
THE EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS
Colossae was a city of Phrygia, a district in Asia Minor. It was pleasantly located in the valley of the Lycus, a branch of the Meander. Two other cities are also mentioned in this Epistle to the Colossians, the cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis (Colossians 4:13). Laodicea was only nine miles and Hierapolis, thirteen miles from Colossae. Laodicea was a very rich and influential city. Hierapolis was famous for its hot springs. Colossae was the smallest of these three cities. Christian believers lived in all three cities and later the Lord selected the church of the Laodiceans and addressed to it the final message of the seven churches (Revelation 3:1-22). The region of Phrygia was well settled by Jews, some of whom were in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). We shall find through the study of this Epistle that a Jewish sect which held evil doctrines flourished in the whole region; this sect was known as the Essenes, and the Spirit of God warns against their false teachings in the Epistle. Phrygia also was known as the seat of other heresies, especially an oriental-philosophical mysticism.
The Church in Colossae
It seems that the church in Colossae was preeminently a Gentile church (Colossians 2:13). How did it come into existence? Paul evidently did not visit the city, though he passed through Phrygia (Acts 16:6; Acts 18:23), for he writes in this Epistle, “For I would that ye know what great conflict I have for you, and for them in Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh” (Colossians 2:1).
It seems also clear that the church in Colossae came into existence after Paul had passed through that region the second time as stated in Acts 18:23, for if a church had existed then in that city, he would probably have visited Colossae. If we turn to the nineteenth chapter of the book of Acts, which records the long sojourn of the Apostle Paul in Ephesus, we have a hint on how the gospel was made known to the Colossians. First we read that Paul continued for two years, “so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). And then Demetrius the silversmith witnessed to the extension of the work of Paul while being in Ephesus. “Moreover ye see and hear, that not only in Ephesus, but almost throughout Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people...” (Acts 19:26).
Asia does not mean the continent, but a province of Asia Minor, of which Phrygia was a part. The whole region heard the gospel during his stay in the prominent city of Ephesus ; among the visitors who listened to the messages of Paul were people from Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis. These carried the gospel back to their homes and thus churches were formed. Philemon and Epaphras of Colossae must in this way have heard the gospel from the apostle and became the instruments through whom the church in their home-city was founded.
That Epaphras was the more prominent one becomes certain from Colossians 1:7 and Colossians 4:12-13.
The Occasion and Object of the Epistle
Paul in Rome had received, probably through Epaphras, the information that the Colossian Christians were facing great dangers as to their faith. What the danger was the text of the Epistle will show us more fully. A number of false doctrines emanating from philosophical speculations, oriental mysticism, asceticism and Judaism, were being advocated amongst them and threatened the complete corruption of the church. Later a system known by the name of Gnosticism (from the Greek word “gnosis”--knowledge) wrought great havoc in the Church; the beginning of it was troubling the Colossians, who seemed to have been an intellectual class to whom the philosophical, mystical and ascetic teachings appealed in a special way. Gnosticism attempted to explain creation, the origin of evil, God, etc., apart from the revelation God has given in His Word.
Besides speaking of a certain class of beings, half-gods of different rank, they denied that God had created the world, but that an inferior being had called it into existence. This system taught that matter is evil and that the only way to escape from evil would be to repudiate matter completely. The worst feature of these Gnostic teachings was a denial of the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ and His work of redemption. It was a philosophical, theosophical speculation, anti-Christian throughout. Well did Polycarp say to the Gnostic Marcion, “I know thee, thou firstborn of Satan.” While this evil system had not yet fully developed in the Colossian church, the foundation for it had been laid and the Holy Spirit anticipated its coming, and in sending this document to the Colossians answers the false teachings of Gnosticism. This is of equal interest and importance to the Church in the twentieth century. “Christian Science,” so-called, that philosophical-theosophical-mystical cult, is a satanic revival of ancient Gnosticism. The Epistle to the Colossians must, therefore, be an effectual weapon against this cult, which denies the two pillars of Christianity, the Son of God and the finished work of the cross.
The Colossians were also being misled, as the second chapter shows us, by other false teachers. Judaizers were at work among them. We are not left to infer respecting the class of religionists to which these teachers belonged, for the mention of “new moon and Sabbath” in Colossians 2:16, at once characterizes them as Judaizers, and leads us to the then prevalent forms of Jewish philosophy to trace them. Not that these teachers were merely Jews; they were Christians (by profession), but they attempted to mix with the gospel of Christ the theosophy and angelology of the Jews of their times. They became infected with theosophic and ascetic principles and were gradually being drawn away from the simple doctrine of Christ. This false system of philosophy and ascetic mysticism, attempting to intrude into unseen things, with which was linked angel-worship, limited the superiority and greatness of the Lord Jesus Christ and more so the sufficiency of His work of redemption.
The occasion of the Epistle was the existence of these evil things among them. The object in writing was more than counteracting the false doctrines. The Holy Spirit unfolds the truth of the gospel, showing in this Epistle the majesty and glory of Christ, that He has the preeminence in all things, head of creation and head of the Church; it unfolds the completeness of His redemption and the believer’s completeness in Christ as risen with Christ and in living union with Him, in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily. Like all the great Pauline Epistles, containing the revelation of God to man, the Colossian Epistle with its vital and glorious truths, is meat in due season for God’s people, especially in these days when we are confronted by the same errors in modern movements and energized by the power of Satan to destroy the very foundations of the faith.
Colossians in Contrast with Ephesians
Colossians was written by Paul about the year 62 A.D., from the Roman prison, and, as stated in the introduction to the Epistle to the Ephesians was carried by the same messenger who also received the Ephesian Epistle from the hands of the Apostle. Tychicus was this messenger (Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7-9). There is a striking resemblance between these two Epistles, which have been called “twins.” Dean Alford speaks of it as follows: “in writing both, the apostle’s mind was in the same frame--full of the glories of Christ and the consequent glorious privileges of His Church, which is built on Him, and vitally knit to Him. This mighty subject, as he looked with indignation on the beggarly system of meats and drinks and hallowed days and angelic mediations to which his Colossians were being drawn down, rose before him in all its length and breadth and height, but as writing to them, he was confined to one portion of it, and to setting forth that one portion pointedly and controversially. He could not, consistently with the effect which he would produce on them, dive into the depths of the divine counsels in Christ with regard to them.”
Ephesians and Colossians embody the highest revelations God has given to man. Colossians is the counterpart of the Ephesian Epistle; each may be viewed as a supplement to the other. In Ephesians the revelation concerns mostly the body of Christ (the Church), the fullness of that body, its rich privileges and heavenly destiny; in Colossians the head of that body in His fullness and glory is blessedly revealed. In Ephesians we find repeatedly the blessed position of the believer stated “in Christ Jesus”; in Colossians we read of Christ in the believer, “Christ in you.” Ephesians reveals the calling of God and exhorts believers “to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called”; Colossians making known the Lord and His glory, exhorts “to walk worthy of the Lord.”
Controversy concerning evil doctrines and errors is absent in Ephesians; it is prominent in Colossians. In Ephesians the Holy Spirit and His work in the believer is fully brought out. Then we read of the quickening, the sealing, the filling of the Spirit and are warned against quenching and grieving the Spirit; in Colossians nothing is said about the Holy Spirit, the doctrine concerning the Spirit is absent. The annotations will point out the reason for this.
At the same time the redemption truths of Ephesians as well as Romans and Galatians are all touched upon in Colossians. The great truths contained in these wonderful Epistles must ever be kept in freshness and in power by the Spirit of God before the heart and mind of God’s people, so that they can live and walk as those who are redeemed and be kept in the enjoyment of salvation. The more these deep and precious documents are studied the greater the blessedness for God’s people. May God the Holy Spirit, the author of this Epistle, fill, through His message, our eyes and hearts with Him who is our Lord and the Head of His body.
The Division of Colossians
Colossians 2:9-10 is the center of the Epistle. “For in Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in Him who is the head of all principality and power.” It is the very heart of the Epistle, the key which unlocks its heavenly treasures. We get in this verse the scope of the Epistle. The apostle does not begin by warning the Colossians of the danger and by exposing the fatal errors which were creeping in among them. He writes first of Him and His glory. The Spirit of God wants the Colossians to get the right estimate of the Person and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, of His dignity and preeminence in all things, of the great work of reconciliation, the peace which was made in the blood of the cross and the present and future results of this work.
Then He shows that the believer is in Christ, that He who is bodily in glory, in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells is the fullness of the believer. Each is complete in Him. And therefore ordinances, philosophy, traditions of men, intruding in mysterious things, angel-worship, cannot add anything to the believer’s knowledge or perfection. His perfection is Christ. Then follow exhortations, how a believer who is risen with Christ and one with Him should walk down here. We divide, therefore, this Epistle into three parts.
I. THE PERSON OF CHRIST, HIS GLORY AND HIS WORK (1)
II. COMPLETE IN HIM, IN WHOM ALL THE FULLNESS DWELLS (2)
III. THE PRACTICAL RESULTS, LIVING AS RISEN WITH CHRIST (3:4-4:18)
the Sixth Week after Easter