No one familiar with the Pauline Letters can fail to see how intimately linked are those to the Ephesians and the Colossians. It is very likely that the letter from Laodicea, referred to in the last chapter of the epistle we are considering, is really our epistle to the Ephesians, and therefore we can understand why the apostle was anxious that both should be read by the same people. My reasons for saying this will come out later. Some, in fact, 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 presents the great truth revealed to Paul and through him made known to all nations for the obedience of faith, and which he emphatically calls the mystery. It is the church as the body of Christ in its heavenly aspect, as 1 Corinthians reveals the body in responsibility down here on the earth. Ephesians, of course, does not overlook the importance of our responsibility to walk according to the calling wherewith we are called, and to manifest the unity of the Spirit in our measure while still in this scene. Doctrinally, however, it is the body as the aggregate of all believers from Pentecost to the rapture, united to a risen Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit, that seems the theme of that epistle.
Colossians, on the other hand, has to do with Christ as the Head of the body. It seeks to fix the hearts of the saints upon Him as risen and glorified, known no longer after the flesh but, in resurrection, the Head of a new order, and believers as responsible to manifest Him, to hold the Head, here in this world. So we might say the Headship of Christ is the theme of this epistle. We need not therefore be surprised to find great similarity in Ephesians and Colossians, for so intimate is the link between Christ and the members of His body that what is said of the one may often be said of the other, and it is given to the members of the body to manifest the risen life of the Head. He it is with whom the Holy Spirit occupies us in order that we may be separated practically from all that would dishonor Him and delivered from anything that would tend to keep Him at a distance.
At the beginning there was very real need for such ministry. Christianity as a divine system seemed likely to be overwhelmed (only that the Lord Himself was watching over His own truth) in the first centuries by a strange mixture of Jewish legality, Grecian philosophy, and Oriental mysticism, so interwoven as to form several altogether new systems 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. These various systems were known under the general name of “Gnosticism.” This, of course, in pretension, at least, was the very opposite to what Huxley some years ago designated “Agnosticism.” The latter term means “without knowledge.”
The Agnostic says God is unknowable, 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.” He complacently takes it for granted that because he does not know, no one else does. He refuses the divine revelation given us in Holy Scripture and so is content to be an ignoramus (which is but the Latin equivalent for Agnostic), when he might have assured knowledge as one taught of God.
The Gnostic, on the other hand, says, I do know. Gnosis, from which the term is derived, simply means “knowledge.” Epignosis, used by the apostle for Christianity, is really “super-knowledge.” 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, or perverted, the scriptural revelation, linking with it weird Persian dreams and human reasonings. He was neither a Jew, a Christian, a Philosopher, nor a Zoroastrian. He considered himself superior to them all, very much as the Theosophists do today, having taken what he thought to be the best out of all these systems and made a new system therewith. This weird imitation of the divine mysteries pretended to great depth of spirituality, to remarkable fullness of knowledge, to great profundity of thought. It 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, concerning whom the Gnostics indulged in the wildest speculations. I have neither time nor space here to go into the weird speculations of Gnosticism with its amazing conception of grades of spirit beings mediating between the uncreated God and His creatures. Those who are interested can readily find access to full explanations concerning the Demiurge and the host of Kabalistic Eons and inferior emanations supposedly coming in between the soul and God.
The place that Christ Himself held in this system varied according to the vagaries of the respective teachers. Some thought that Jesus was but a man, and the Christ, the divine Spirit which came to Him at His baptism and which left Him at the cross, so it could not be said Christ died, but simply Jesus died. You will recognize this as the root error of what is commonly called Christian Science and of most phases of the so-called “New Thought” of today. 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 became flesh.”
The first of these systems seems to be before the mind of the apostle Paul in the writing of Colossians. The second is met by the apostle John in his three Epistles. Both systems would rob the saints of the true Christ of God. They put Him afar off with many angels intervening who must first be invoked and placated before union with Christ can be known. Paul shows that we come to Him immediately, He being the one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus. Again, these Gnostics placed varied ranks of principalities and powers, glorious spirit beings, above and beyond Him, leading up to the invisible God. Whereas the apostle Paul shows us that He is the Creator of all principalities and powers, and that they must all be subject to Him who is Himself the image of the invisible God.
I would not think it necessary to occupy people with these old errors were it not that the danger of losing sight of the Head is as real today as it was then. Every modern erroneous cult is just some old satanic heresy revived, and each is designed to misrepresent some aspect of revealed truth in regard to Christ and His redemptive work. The advocates of these systems may profess great humility and preach and practice great self-abnegation, even to the neglecting of the body and its physical needs, but they all put Christ Jesus—the true Christ of God—at a distance, and an imaginary Christ, a Christ who is not an atoning Savior, in His place. Some degree of familiarity with the ancient theories might save honest souls from being entangled in the meshes of these newer systems. Therefore the need, in every age, of reading this Colossian letter afresh in order that we ever may hold the Head.
It has been observed by others, but will bear repeating, that so intent is the Spirit upon glorifying Christ in this wonderful epistle that He ever hides Himself. In Ephesians, where it is the truth of the one body that is being unfolded, the Holy Spirit is mentioned many times, and we have clear teaching as to His personality and operations. In Colossians He is never mentioned doctrinally, and only once incidentally, if I may so say where I recognize divine design throughout, and that is in verse 8 of chapter 1 where the writer speaks of having heard through Epaphras of the Colossians’ “love in the Spirit.” This is surely most significant. Even the Holy Spirit Himself, eternally coequal with the Father and Son, who all together constitute one God, would nevertheless hide Himself if men belittle or lose sight of the Lord Jesus as Head of the new creation. The blessed Paraclete speaks not from or of Himself but He takes of the things of Christ and shows them unto us. He would not even risk (to speak after the manner of men) being put in as one coming between the believer and Christ.
It may be well to point out that so far as we have any record Paul had never been to Colosse as a ministering servant, though Philemon, who was of that assembly, had been converted through him. But the saints in that city he had not seen in the flesh. Many individuals may have heard him during the time he was in Ephesus when “all in Asia” heard the Word, as related in Acts 19. By Asia here we are not to understand either the continent nor yet Asia Minor, but a much smaller district, ruled by a Roman proconsul, and therefore known as the “proconsular province of Asia.” Thither Paul was at one time forbidden to go. There he later labored with much blessing. There the seven churches of the Apocalypse were afterward located. Though Colosse was not one of these addressed by the Lord when He appeared to John in Patmos, yet it was situated very close to Laodicea, which with Colosse and Hierapolis formed a trio of cities in which were large Christian assemblies in early days.
Epaphras was the chosen instrument for the evangelization of Colosse. He evidently remained among the saints and cared for them as a godly pastor afterward. But he found himself hard beset by emissaries of Satan, who were bent upon misleading these young believers for their own selfish advantage. He therefore sought the help of Paul, the apostle, who was at this time a prisoner in Rome. It was in response to his plea that the letter was penned by divine inspiration, which is now before us.
Another subject which is full of interest is the fact that God in so many instances 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.
It is a signal mercy that in His wisdom God allowed every possible form of error to arise in the apostolic era of the church’s history in order that all might be exposed, and the truth declared through inspired men that thus the faith in its simplicity might be preserved for the generations to come. As a result of this, Satan has nothing new to offer. Old heresies are redressed and brought forward as new conceptions of truth from age to age, but in this respect, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Therefore, all the Christian needs to protect him from modern systems of an evil character is a better acquaintance with the Word of God, where 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, such as Theosophy or Spiritualism, nor will he be deluded by the revived Gnostic religions of Eddyism, Unity School of Christianity, or other branches of the misnamed New Thought.
In studying any book of the Bible it is well to have its outline clearly in mind. I submit the following synoptic analysis as a suggestive outline of the epistle to the Colossians:
Part 1: Doctrinal (1:1-3:4)
A. Salutation (1:1-2)
B. Introduction (1:3-8)
C. Paul’s prayer and thanksgiving (1:9-14)
D. Twofold headship of Christ (1:15-19)
E. Twofold reconciliation (1:20-22)
F. Twofold ministry of the present dispensation (1:23-29)
G. Christ the true wisdom: Revelation of the mystery of God (2:1-7) H. Christ the antidote for Agnostic Philosophy (2:8-10)
I. Christ the antidote for Jewish Legality (2:11-17)
J. Christ the antidote for Gnostic Mysticism (2:18-19)
K. Christ the antidote for Carnal Asceticism (2:20-23)
L. Christ the believer’s life and object (3:1-4)
Part 2: Practical (3:5-4:18)
A. Practical holiness by conformity to Christ (3:5-17)
B. Natural relationships sanctified (3:18-4:1)
C. Concluding exhortations (4:2-6)
D. Salutations (4:7-18)
This is, of course, in no sense arbitrary. Many other outlines have been suggested, and some of these may be much better than that which I have suggested. But it is along these lines that I purpose examining afresh this precious portion of the Word of God, which, like all Scripture, is written for our learning, and seems to have increasing value as new cults and false systems abound, all designed to make us lose sight of the Head and forget our union with Him in glory.