Book traversal links for Author's Introduction
No one familiar with the Pauline letters can fail to see that the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians are intimately linked. The apostle was anxious that both should be read by the same people. It is very likely that the letter “from Laodicea” referred to in Colossians 4:16 is really our Epistle to the Ephesians. Some people who do not accept the inspiration of the New Testament have supposed that Colossians was a crude attempt to rewrite Ephesians from memory, but a careful examination of both letters shows that the one is the correlative of the other.
Ephesians declares the great truth that was revealed to Paul and through him to all nations—the truth that he emphatically called the “mystery.” In that letter the apostle presented the church as the body of Christ in its heavenly aspect, just as in 1 Corinthians he set forth the responsibilities of the body down here on the earth. Ephesians of course does not overlook the importance of our responsibility on earth to fulfill our calling and demonstrate the unity of the Spirit. Doctrinally, however, the theme of that Epistle seems to be the body as the aggregate of believers from Pentecost to the rapture, all united to a risen Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Colossians, on the other hand, has to do with Christ as the Head of the body. This Epistle seeks to fix the hearts of the saints on Him as risen and glorified, known no longer after the flesh but in resurrection as the Head of a new order. And the letter seeks to impress on believers their responsibility in this world to acknowledge Him as the Head of the body. So we might say the headship of Christ is the theme of Colossians.
We should not be surprised to find great similarities in Ephesians and Colossians, for so intimate is the link between Christ and His body that what is said of one may often be said of the other. It is the task of the members of the body to manifest the risen life of the Head. The Holy Spirit focuses our attention on the Head so that we will be separated from all that would dishonor Him and delivered from anything that would tend to keep Him at a distance.
At the beginning of the church age there was an obvious need for ministry such as that found in the book of Colossians. If the Lord Himself had not been watching over His own truth, genuine Christian doctrine might have been overwhelmed in the first centuries by a strange mixture of Jewish legality, Grecian philosophy, and oriental mysticism. These were interwoven to form several altogether new systems of thought with which the name of Christ was linked in a most cunning way. The result was the “mystery of iniquity” referred to in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. The various new systems were grouped under the general name of gnosticism.
Gnosticism, at least in title, was the opposite of what Huxley years later designated agnosticism. The latter term means “without knowledge.” The agnostic claims that God is unknowable, that the mystery of the universe is unsolvable. He says, “There may or may not be a personal God back of this universe; matter may or may not be eternal; man may or may not survive death. I do not know.” And he complacently takes it for granted that because he does not know, no one else does. The agnostic refuses to accept the divine revelation given to us in the Holy Scriptures and so is content to be an ignoramus (which is the Latin equivalent of agnostic) when he might have the sure knowledge of one who is taught by God.
The gnostic, on the other hand, said, “I do know.” Gnosis, from which the term “gnostic” is derived, simply means “knowledge.” Epignosis, a term used by the apostle to refer to Christianity, really means “superknowledge.” The gnostic professed to have fuller knowledge of the mysteries of life and death and heavenly beings than the Bible itself reveals. He added to Scriptural revelation or perverted it by linking it with weird Persian dreams and human reasonings. He was neither a Jew, a Christian, a philosopher, nor a Zoroastrian. The gnostic, having taken what he thought to be the best out of all their systems, considered himself superior to them all, very much as the theosophist does today.
Gnosticism, a weird imitation of the divine mysteries, pretended to great depth of spirituality, remarkable fullness of knowledge, and great profundity of thought. This new system was therefore most attractive to the natural mind, ever delighting in speculation on sacred themes, but it was Satanic in origin and deliberately planned by the enemy to hide the glory shining in the face of Christ Jesus.
I have neither time nor space here to discuss gnosticism’s grades of spirit-beings mediating between the uncreated God and His creatures. Those who are interested can readily find full explanations of the demiurge and the host of cabbalistic eons and inferior emanations supposedly coming in between the soul and God. The place that Christ Himself held in this system varied from teacher to teacher, many gnostics indulged in the wildest speculations.
Some thought that Jesus was only a man, and that Christ was the divine Spirit that came to Jesus at His baptism and left Him at the cross; so it could not be said that Christ died—only Jesus died. You will recognize this teaching as the root error of what is commonly called Christian Science. Others held that the body of Jesus was only spiritual, not material; they linked evil with matter and therefore refused to believe that “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). The first view seems to have been on the mind of the apostle Paul as he wrote Colossians. The second was addressed by the apostle John in his three Epistles.
Both views rob the saints of the true Christ of God. Gnostic thought puts Him far off with many angels intervening; these must be invoked and placated before union with Christ can be known. Paul showed that we can come to Him immediately, that the man Christ Jesus is the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5). The gnostics placed Christ below various ranks of principalities and powers and glorious spirit-beings leading up to the invisible God, whereas Paul showed that Christ is the Creator of all principalities and powers and that they must all be subject to Him “who is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
I would not think it necessary to discuss these old errors if it were not true that the danger of losing sight of the Head is as real today as it was in Paul’s day. Every modern erroneous cult is just some old Satanic heresy revived, and each is designed to misrepresent some aspect of revealed truth about Christ and His redemptive work. The advocates of these systems may profess great humility and preach and practice great self-abnegation, even to the point of neglecting the body and its physical needs. But they all put Christ Jesus, the true Christ of God, at a distance and set an imaginary christ, a christ who is not an atoning savior, in His place. Some degree of familiarity with the ancient theories might prevent honest souls from being entangled in the meshes of the newer systems. Therefore Christians of every era need to read this Colossian letter so that they will hold onto the concept of Christ as Head of the body.
It has been observed by others, but it bears repeating, that the Spirit is so intent on glorifying Christ in this wonderful Epistle that He hides Himself. In Ephesians, where the truth of the one body is being unfolded, the Holy Spirit is mentioned many times and we find clear teaching as to His personality and function. But in Colossians He is never mentioned doctrinally, and only once “incidentally” (I do not mean without divine design) and that is in 1:8 where Paul referred to his readers’ “love in the Spirit.” This omission is surely most significant. The Holy Spirit, though eternally coequal with the Father and Son who all together constitute one God, hides Himself lest men belittle or lose sight of the Lord Jesus as Head of the new creation. The blessed Paraclete speaks not of Himself, but shows the things of Christ to us. He would not even “risk” (as men would say) being thought of as One coming between the believer and Christ.
As far as we know, Paul had never been to Colossae as a ministering servant, although Philemon, who was a resident of that city, had been converted through him. The apostle had not seen the saints to whom he was writing, but many of them may have heard him during the time he was in Ephesus when “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word” (Acts 19:10). “Asia” here refers not to the continent nor to Asia Minor, but to a much smaller district ruled by a Roman proconsul and therefore known as the “proconsular province of Asia.” At one time Paul was forbidden to go to Asia, but later he labored there with much blessing.
The seven churches of the Apocalypse were located in Asia. Although Colossae was not addressed by the Lord when He appeared to John in Patmos, the city was situated close to Laodicea, which with Colossae and Hierapolis formed a trio of cities with large assemblies of Christians in the early days.
Epaphras was the chosen instrument for the evangelization of Colossae. He evidently remained among the saints and cared for them as a godly pastor after their conversion. But he was beset by emissaries of Satan who for their own selfish advantage were bent on misleading the young believers. Epaphras therefore sought the help of the apostle Paul, who at the time was a prisoner in Rome. In response to this pastor’s plea, Paul—by divine inspiration—penned his letter to the Colossians.
In so many instances God permitted error in doctrine or corruption in life in the early churches to be the means of adding to the volume of divine revelation and instruction. In His mercy and wisdom He allowed every possible form of error to arise in the apostolic era of the church’s history so that all error might be exposed and the truth declared through inspired men, thus preserving the faith in its simplicity for the generations to come. As a result Satan has nothing new to offer.
From time to time old heresies are re-dressed and introduced as new conceptions of truth, but “there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). All the Christian needs to protect him from modern evil systems of thought is a better acquaintance with the Word of God. In Scripture the truth is taught in its purity and the lies of the adversary are brought out into the light and fully exposed. No one familiar with the teaching of Colossians, for instance, will ever be misled by the specious sophistries of the various occult systems now being foisted on a credulous public. He will not be misled by theosophy or spiritualism, nor will he be deluded by the revived gnostic religions of Eddyism, the Unity School of Christianity, or other branches of the misnamed New Thought.
The first part of Colossians is doctrinal (1:1-3:4) and the second part is practical (3:5-4:18). This letter is a precious portion of the Word of God and, like all Scripture, was “written for our learning” (Romans 15:4). The Epistle seems to have increasing value as new cults and false systems abound, for they are all designed to make us lose sight of the Head and forget our union with Him in glory.