Keeping the Truth

Explore the Bible Series

May 8, 2011


Lesson Passage: Colossians 2:8-23




Some New Testament scholars, in recent years, have misrepresented the early history of Christianity, in my judgment.  Based largely on the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945, these scholars proposed an alternative view of the development of Christian theology, an interpretation that includes some false conclusion.


 Two brothers, collecting lime to use as fertilizer, discovered more than fifty ancient documents, near the Upper Egyptian town, Nag Hammadi.  The scrolls contain Coptic texts that reflect the teachings of an early heresy called Gnosticism. In recent years some academics have constructed an interpretive model around these texts, a model that trivializes traditional views concerning the New Testament.  In particular, they propose that “rival Christianities” evolved during the first three centuries of the Christian Era.  These “Christianities” battled for preeminence for many generations; then, during the reign of Emperor Constantine, “traditional, orthodox” Christianity won imperial approval.  Thus, the emergence of historic Christianity occurred as a result of imperial coercion.


This week’s lesson challenges this position.  I offer these considerations.

  1. Pauline Christianity developed very early; indeed, Paul’s views on the person and work of Christ drew from the apostolic accounts of the ministry of Jesus, and his writings demonstrate a clear, unmistakable Christology.  The early church, for centuries, wrestled with the nature and meaning of the incarnation; however, Gnostic, Docetic, nor Arian (early heresies) Christology represented Pauline views.  This seems clear from a careful study of New Testament passages like the Colossians 2:1-15.
  2. Paul recognized and opposed false doctrine from the very earliest years of the Christian Movement.  I find no convincing evidence that “rival Christianities” gained any legitimacy among early Christian leaders like James, John, Paul, or Peter.  Indeed, all four of these New Testament authors challenged false doctrines, especially early forms of Gnosticism.  Orthodox theology did not develop during the Fourth Century, and imperial contrivance did not reshape the church’s understanding of the central claims of the faith.


This passage outlines Paul’s grave concerns about false teachings in Colossae.  For reasons we cannot discern, Paul did not provide a description of the exact nature of the heresy, but the text seems to reflect the teachings of the same kind of legalism that troubled other churches.  Also, some early Gnostic elements contributed to the fabric of the problematic teachings.  Paul fought these aberrations with clear arguments for the veracity of the gospel, and this lesson outline will, I trust, reflect the apostle’s claims.


As before, I owe a great debt to Dr. Curtis Vaughan’s analysis of this passage.


Lesson Outline:


I.       Warning Against False Teachings (2:8-15)

A.    The warning stated (v. 8a): Paul feared that this teacher (the passage seems to indicate a single individual) would kidnap the hearts and minds of the Colossians.  We should not understand Paul’s words as a blanket condemnation of philosophy; instead, he denounced the “empty deceit” of this particular form of teaching. 

B.     The nature of the false teaching (v. 8b): It bore three characteristics.

1.     “according to human tradition”: Paul may mean, in this description, the Jewish oral tradition handed down through the Pharisees; however, he may also include various pagan traditions that were an important thread in the fabric of this heresy.  Whatever the case, he contrasted these human traditions with the revealed teachings of the gospel.

2.     “according to the elemental spirits of the world”: Here, Paul may refer to the worship of angels.

3.     “and not according to Christ”: This false teaching displaced the centrality of Christ, placing emphasis on the veneration of angels and legalistic demands.

C.     The supremacy of Christ (vv. 9-15): Paul made three claims about Jesus.

1.     The full deity of Jesus (v. 9a): The fullness of deity resides in Christ.  He possesses, in all respects, the fullness of the divine nature.

2.     The full humanity of Jesus (v. 9b): The apostle affirmed the humanity of the Lord.  In an effort to confirm the divine nature of Jesus, Christians may devalue his real humanity, but Paul endorsed a balanced view verifying the mystery of the Incarnation.

3.     The complete adequacy of Christ’s redemptive work (vv. 10-15):  Gnostics claimed a mediatorial role for angels, but the apostle reserved his praise for the Savior alone.  In Christ alone rests the full authority, in heaven and earth.  Believers are joined with Christ through the circumcision of the heart (the true circumcision) and baptism (an outward sign of an inward reality—a rite that reflects our unity with Christ’s death and resurrection), raised to new life and forgiven of all sin. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, cancelled the legal indictments against his people, and, in doing so, he defeated demonic powers, putting them to shame and triumphing over them.


II.    Three Aspects of this False Teaching (vv. 16-23)

A.    The danger of legalism (vv. 16-17): As with other churches, Paul discovered a Judaistic element among the Colossians.  Though predominantly a Gentile congregation, someone imposed Jewish law on these believers: dietary regulations, Old Testament liturgy, and circumcision (mentioned elsewhere in the epistle).  Note that Paul valued the Law as a beneficial “shadow” of New Testament realities; yet, in his theology, the shadows must yield to the substantive truths of the gospel of Christ.

B.     The danger of angel worship (vv. 18-19): It appears Paul had in mind the peculiar practice of the Gnostics.  They believed in a pantheon of creatures that emanated from God and acted as mediators between God and man. Also they advocated a form of mysticism that, they claimed, arose from visions and ecstatic experiences.

C.     The danger of asceticism (vv. 20-23): Ascetics believe the body is evil; thus, they see the means to holiness is to buffet the body, denying its needs and desires.   These man-made regulations do not promote true godliness, in part, because they displace the centrality of Jesus.  In Christ alone the church has its being and hope for spiritual health and vitality.