Whenever we study one of the New Testament epistles (letters) it is important that we firstly ask some questions. Where was the city situated? Who wrote the letter to the Church there? Why was the letter initially written to this Church? These questions are vital for understanding the context of the letter, without which we may be misinterpreting or laying our own ideas onto the text. It is also important to understand how the culture which received the letter was different to our own. We will do this as we study Colossians and apply the lessons God has for us in this 21st century?
The city of Colossae was situated near the towns of Hierapolis and Laodicea in the valley of Lycus in what is now Turkey. It was not a particularly important city, rather one you would travel through on your way to somewhere else. It is most likely that Paul never visited this city in his life-time. The Church in Colossae was apparently founded by Epaphras (1:7).
Like so many of the New Testament letters, Colossians was written by the apostle Paul. He was in prison at Rome when he wrote the letter, and it was written about the same time as he wrote the letter to the Ephesians. Colossians was written after Paul received a report from Epaphras concerning a heresy which had surfaced and was threatening the true teaching of the gospel in Colossae. There were several Churches around and near Colossae who were also practising these heretical teachings, so Paul wrote Colossians to an entire area, rather than to only one group. In 4:16 he asks that this letter be read in the church at Laodicea and that the Colossians read one from Laodicea. If Paul wrote a special letter to the Laodicean church, it has been lost to us.
What was the heresy? The heresy confronted at Colossae was an early form of Gnosticism, a heresy which swept through the Church for over 100 years and seriously threatened the purity of the gospel message. The book of 1st John was specifically written to combat Gnosticism.
Here is an exert from my book Religion: History and Mystery which explains this heresy.
The Book of Acts, chapter 8, records the meeting of Simon Peter, an apostle of Christ, and Simon Magus who was considered to be a sorcerer. After seeing that people received the Holy Spirit after the apostles laid hands upon them, Magus tried to purchase this power with money. Simon Magus had taken an interest in Christian theology but was never converted. According to tradition, he became the father of Gnosticism. Keep in mind that Simon Magus was a Samaritan by birth. His mother was a Jewess and father Persian. There was a great deal of animosity between Jew and Samaritan, and perhaps this led Simon to seek other answers to life rather than within the pages of his mother's religion of Judaism.
Gnosticism comes from the word 'gnosis', or knowledge, and in this case, a secret knowledge available to only a select group. Gnostics believed that there was an uncreated god/goddess who created several Aeons, one known as Sophia (Greek for wisdom). Sophia, in turn, created demigods. One of the demigods was the Hebrew God Jehovah. According to the Gnostics, Jehovah created the universe and all material things, but, because he was a jealous god, he was responsible for evil in the world. Jehovah tried to stop the first humans from receiving knowledge. After they tried to gain knowledge by eating of the 'Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil', Jehovah banned them from the Garden of Eden and punished them.
Lucifer is the good guy in Gnostic teaching; he had crept into the garden to help the humans find gnosis (knowledge) and was then cursed by Jehovah. Sophia sent Lucifer's brother, Jesus, to teach people how to get back to the truth, but His disciples misunderstood Him. Gnostics believed that the entire material world was evil because it had been created by a lesser god, Jehovah. Therefore, they claimed that Jesus never had a real human body at all; He simply appeared to be human. This particular idea is called 'Docetism', from the word doce, 'to appear'. For Christians, this theology, apart from being offensive, reduced the gospel message to a farce. Moreover, if Jesus wasn't a real person, then His sacrifice on the cross was not real, and therefore, ineffective. In his first letter to the Church the apostle John writes against Gnosticism, putting an emphasis on the real humanity of Jesus.
For Gnostics, only the spirit world can be pure and holy, taking its roots back to Sophia who has no material form. For the leaders of Gnosticism, such as Simon Magus, the power to perform the supernatural was given to those who climbed up through various stages of esoteric teaching, and was closely tied to visitations of angels and other spiritual beings.
IV. Gnostic Practices
Little is known about Gnostic practices as much of their literature was destroyed. However, some of the 'gospels' written by Gnostics to counter the Christian gospels still survive, and also a lot of literature written by Christians, such as Irenaeus, about their practices. Salvation for Gnostics is to find the spark of the divine Sophia which remains within and develop it through various techniques, including meditation and asceticism. Many scholars have seen a very direct link to Eastern religions here, especially some of the early teachings in the Gathas and Avestas, the writings of the Zoroastrians. This would not be unlikely as Simon Magus' father was Persian and may have had access to such literature.
Women played a large role in leadership, especially because of their communication with spirits and angels (Col: 2:18) who presumably passed on secret information about salvation. Within Gnosticism there is a great emphasis on the human person as divine and self development to full divinity. Self is essentially good because humans can become divine, and many Gnostic practices resemble closely the religions of the Aryans such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
From the writings which have survived, it appears that Gnosticism split into two radically different factions. On the one side were the ascetics who taught that the body must be overcome and restrained. Strict forms of self-discipline were applied in order to gain higher spiritual awareness, a practice Paul mentions in Colossians 2:23.
On the other side was almost the complete opposite. Some Gnostics believed that the body could not affect the spirit at all and practiced extremely liberal forms of sexuality, indulging in orgies. They believed that the emotions, lusts, and desires must be released in order to free the spirit from bodily bondage, in a similar way to the people of the past who had worshipped Baal, Ashtorah, etc. In general terms, anything that Jehovah banned must be the way to spiritual freedom. Jehovah had destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their immoral sexuality and homosexuality, so it was assumed that similar practices must be beneficial in finding secret knowledge.
V. The points as they relate to the Colossians
The first point of Gnosticism separates people into groups, those with special knowledge and those without it. In Colossae, the claim was that this special knowledge was being given by angels, and angels were being worshipped as a result of this teaching. As no angel of God would ever accept worship, we can safely assume that it was fallen angels (demons) which were being worshipped and giving these people false experiences of ‘knowledge’.
The second point is even more of a problem. If all matter is evil, then how could a good God create such evil? Also, the Gnostics claimed that God could never become truly human because He would have to touch the physical/evil creation, and they believed that this was impossible. The Gnostics taught that there were levels of holiness, and many beings with less and less divinity until we get to Jesus and the angels.
VI. Paul’s Answer
In Colossians Paul points out that every believer has received the Divine knowledge through Jesus Christ, and that the Holy Spirit dwells in all Christians, not just a chosen few with ‘special’ knowledge. Paul also reminds them that Christ is the Creator of all things; therefore, the physical universe is not evil. He tells them that using extreme physical discipline has no value for holiness, neither should they worship angels, nor think they are holy for keeping human based rules and traditions. He reminds them not to be involved in sexual immorality and gives them some practical advice for Christian living.
The letter to Colossae has many beautiful points, especially about the person of Jesus Christ in chapter one. It is a book which I believe is very useful in all cultures, especially in cultures where religious and spiritual traditions have become superstitions. Here in Ukraine, where I minister, the ‘worship’ of saints and angels is common practise among many who consider themselves ‘Orthodox’. In Western cultures some churches have allowed eastern religious practices into the Church, and there are many leaders claiming to have special powers from the Holy Spirit which I consider very Gnostic. We will discuss these further as we study this book.
There is also a lot of practical advice for marriage, bringing up children, living in the Spirit, Christian witness, and relationships. All of these we will study while keeping in mind the cultural differences we have with the original readers.