Thoughts on the Book of Colossians

by Dan Tiffin

"See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." (Colossians 2:8 NIV)

The first-century town of Colossae was a perfect breeding ground for cults. Situated on a major trade route from the East, Colossae entertained a steady stream of Oriental traders with mysterious religious ideas. Even Jews in that area worshiped angels and river spirits.

Early Christian converts soon confronted new variations of the gospel. Then, as now, many cults didn't reject Jesus Christ outright; they merely worked him into a more elaborate scheme. Christ and simple forms of worship, they taught, were fine for beginners, but for the "deep things of God," some further steps would be required.

From Paul's letter to the Colossians, we can gather that the philosophy must have included strains of Jewish legalism mixed in with angel worship, Greek philosophy, and strict self-denial. The best defense is a good offense. Rather than attacking each peculiar belief point by point, Paul countered with a positive theology. The principles he outlines in this book can be used today to judge cults.

Paul counteracted the Colossian heresy, which, in part, taught that for salvation one needed to combine faith in Christ with secret knowledge and with man-made regulations concerning such physical and external practices as circumcision, eating and drinking, and observance of religious festivals.

Paul declared that the Christian is complete in Christ, rather than being deficient as the Gnostics of Colossae claimed. "Christ is enough," Paul declared. He is God, the fullness of God, the One who made the world, the reason that everything exists. All the mystery and treasure and wisdom you could ask for are found in the person of Jesus Christ; there is no need to look elsewhere.

Because Jesus bridged the chasm between God and us, we don't have to approach God indirectly, through a ladder of angels or other gods. We have no need to prove our worth through superior behavior. We can come to God directly and boldly because of Christ.

As for Jewish practices, they were mere shadows; made obsolete by Christ's coming. Why not concentrate on the actual image that God sent to earth?

"Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions." (Colossians 2:16-18 NIV)

Although Paul mentions no specific religious cult in his writings, it is as though he was speaking directly of those in the middle 1800s who revived the false teaching that faith in Christ alone was not enough to obtain salvation, and adherence to the ceremonies of the Old Testament were necessary for entering heaven.

Paul refers to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament as "shadows" because they symbolically depicted the coming of Christ. So any insistence on the observance of such ceremonies is a failure to recognize that their fulfillment has already taken place.

Let me say this again for emphasis: The insistence on the observance of such ceremonies is a failure to recognize that their fulfillment has already taken place.

Several years ago I asked for the Lord's forgiveness for ever entertaining the notion that I must somehow practice the "ceremonies" in order to find salvation in Jesus. I felt saddened that I had failed to fully recognize Christ's fulfillment on the cross and instead looked to the "shadows." But Christ's love and forgiveness strengthened me, and all that is now but a "shadow" of my past.

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