THE EPISTLE TO THE COLOSSIANS
Th1s Epistle to the Colossians was written probably to the smallest of the churches which Paul addressed. Colosse was not a great city, compared with Corinth or Rome or Ephesus; and yet, from this small city, there went out influences that were very important for the kingdom of God.
History relates that Antiochus the Great, that tyrant and oppressor of the Jews, brought two thousand Jewish families from Mesopotamia and Babylon and settled them in Phrygia, the southwestern part of Asia Minor. This Jewish influence was, therefore, mixed with an Oriental influence; and the strange combination which we find in the Colossian church of formalism and Oriental theosophy. was perhaps determined by the fact that Judaism in this portion of the world had a historical connection with the East.
In Phrygia there were three cities of some importance. Both Laodicea and Hierapolis were apparently of more importance than Colosse. It was to Laodicea that John wrote one of his seven Epistles to the churches in Asia, which you find in the book of Revelation.
Little Colosse was situated on the banks of the river Lycus, and in the midst of magnificent mountain scenery, so that its situation seems to have prompted a loftiness of thought.
It does not appear that Paul ever made to Colosse a personal visit. During his stay in Ephesus, at the time when he had the most wonderful success in all his apostolic ministry, we read that the word of God went out into the regions of Asia. Although he did not himself visit Colosse, it would almost seem that some residents of Colosse visited Paul; and during those two years when he was teaching in the school of Tyrannus, in Ephesus, day by day, it is not at all improbable that some of the visitors from Colosse heard Paul, became his converts, and took back the gospel to the region from which they came.
What we know of the formation of the church is exceedingly little; but there are indications that Epaphras (not, by the way, Epaphroditus, who was a member of the church of Philippi, but an entirely different person), a Colossian, had received the gospel and had become the evangelist of Colosse. This Epaphras, when Paul became a prisoner at Rome, made Paul a visit in his imprisonment and devoted himself to the apostle's care with such assiduity that he shared the apostle's sufferings and dangers. It would almost seem that he had involved himself in the apostle's imprisonment, so that the apostle calls him a "fellow prisoner." Whether he had become amenable to the law, we do not know, but the epithet Paul bestowed upon him is a peculiar one, his "fellow prisoner in Christ."
When Epaphras made his visit to Paul it is evident that he related to Paul the circumstances of the Colossian church; told him of the new teaching that had become current among them; told him of Jewish teachers who combined with their Jewish tendencies some Oriental notions of a newer and larger wisdom than was provided for in the gospel itself, something of the nature of philosophy, something that was hidden from the mass of men, and was the possession only of the few. By ascetic practices, and by fastings and observances of an outward sort, this wisdom might be obtained. Paul, as a result of these representations on the part of Epaphras, writes this letter to the Colossian church.
We read in the Epistle to Philemon that, just about this same time, Paul had been the means of converting to Christ a runaway slave by the name of Onesimus, who had escaped from his master Philemon and had made his way to the city of Rome, where he thought perhaps there was the best chance of his being hid. After Paul had converted him to Jesus Christ, Onesimus was anxious to return to his master and make reparation for the wrong he had done him. Paul sends him back, and with him he sends that beautiful Epistle to Philemon, in which he commends Onesimus to his Christian forgiveness. Onesimus and Tychicus were the messengers who took this letter to the Colossians as well, and with this apparently the letter to the Ephesians, which is alluded to in the latter part of this letter to the Colossians, where the apostle speaks of another letter which the Colossians were to possess themselves of, while, at the same time, they were to give to the Laodiceans the letter which they themselves had received. So we may conclude that this letter to the Colossians was written either at the close of the year 62, or at the beginning of the year 63, four or five years after the Colossian church had been founded.
It is necessary, in order to understand the apostle, to get some more full idea of the errors that had begun to be prevalent in this Colossian church. They were very peculiar. They were such as we do not find alluded to in the previous letters of Paul. We do find some allusions to them in the pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus. The great danger of the Colossian church was the danger of lukewarmness. That is the specific fault which John rebukes in the neighboring church of Laodicea. Though Laodicea was not a great city, it was wealthy. An earthquake took place, and Tacitus, the historian, tells us that Laodicea was able to rebuild itself with its own resources, without calling in the aid of Rome; and this seems to be mentioned as proof that it was a place of considerable importance.
In the writings of John to Laodicea, he speaks of the church as fancying that it was rich and increasing in goods and had need of nothing. This apparently was also the case with the church in Colosse. Riches had corrupted the Christian heart; the deceitfulness of wealth had led to selfishness and lukewarmness in their Christian faith; and with this influence of worldly goods there was intellectual pride and selfsatisfied reliance upon what mere human reason and speculation could do. There grew up a species of wisdom which was not the wisdom of Christ, not " the wisdom among those that are perfect," which the apostle speaks of in his letter to the Corinthians, but a wisdom of this world. That wisdom was exclusive; it prided itself upon being the possession of the few; it was an esoteric doctrine held by those who fancied that they had greater intellectual powers than the majority of the Christian church. Here was the first great danger of the Colossian church; namely, intellectual pride and dependence upon human speculation, rather than upon Christ or his gospel. This tendency to intellectual speculation ran in a peculiar course, and that course seems to have been determined for it by the Oriental influence to which the Jews in that neighborhood had become subjected.
In order to explain what the doctrine was which the Colossians held, or to which they tended, I shall have to remind you of the fact that, in the East, there were large numbers of persons who thought it was absolutely necessary to separate God from the world in order to explain the existence of evil. They thought it could not be that God had himself created the world, because they saw so much in the world that was wrong. They fancied that the existence of evil was an incident of matter. Man was a sinner because he had a physical system. This was a strange perversion of the truth; it ignored the fact that the soul masters the body, and that the body is only the servant of the soul. There can be no sin properly in the body itself, for all sin has its source in the spirit. We cannot explain moral evil by attributing it simply to the body, or to matter, or to the physical world. The only possible explanation of moral wrong is in the free decision of the moral creature against God; in other words, in the spirit and not in the body.
But this strange sect of thinkers fancied that they could explain evil by calling it a mere incident of the physical system, something which had its origin in our connection with matter. So they thought to remove God just as far as possible from the world, from the physical universe; and they did it in this way. They said that all things proceeded in the last analysis from God, but that things in the universe were successive emanations from the substance of God; God was the central sun, and that as his light proceeded farther and farther from him, it became more and more mixed with darkness; so that, when infinitely removed from God, the darkness predominated over the light, and on the outskirts of the universe evil was in the ascendency. Or, to put the doctrine in a somewhat plainer form and using the word creation, these thinkers fancied that God only created at the beginning something that was really of importance, and then that creation created something else—this creation that was at the second remove from the intercourse being less perfect than the first one was—that this second created a third, and that third created a fourth, and that fourth something still beyond; and when you got far enough away from God, the central light and truth and holiness, why, of course, you had something that was very imperfect indeed, and matter was one of these last emanations or creations. So there was an explanation of evil in the universe.
You can see at once that between man, who is evil, and God, who is holy, there were a great many intermediate creations. There were hierarchies, principalities, and powers between us and God. It could not be said that God was the immediate creator either of our souls or of our bodies; our creation was due to some angelic power. And because these angelic powers were between us and God, they were the proper and natural objects of worship; so that the worship of angels was one of the features of this Oriental system. You can also see that, if God was so very lofty and so very high, and we were so very evil and so very low, it was almost impossible that these corrupted creatures could go at once to God. We must go through mediators—these angels, these principalities, these powers were the media between us and God, and they were to be worshiped as the means by which we might ascend by our thoughts and by our prayers to the Most High.
Another idea besides this of mediatorship between man and God was the result of this system. The body, they said, is the source of evil. If we only could get rid of the body we could be holy. Why, then, the more you can get rid of the body the more holy you will be. If we cannot slough off the body entirely, let us put just as much despite upon the body as we can. So all manner of ascetic practices, all manner of mortifications of the flesh were introduced, as if, through them, men could become holy and could commend themselves to God.
You see, then, that there were three great .practices or errors. First, this intellectual exclusiveness, this spirit of caste in the Christian church; secondly, this idea of mediatorship between man and God, created beings between us and God interposing bars between us and our Maker; and then, thirdly, practical asceticism, self-mortification, putting of despite upon the body, in order that we might thereby become pure.
These great errors it was very important for the subsequent history of the Christian church that Paul should correct. If the Roman church had only paid attention to this Epistle to the Colossians, how much monasticism and self-mortification, how much dependence upon the Virgin and the saints as mediators with God, would have been rendered forever impossible!
The remedy which Paul suggests for all this is simply Christ. Christ is the remedy for all error, because Christ is the absolute and perfect truth. The preaching of Christ and the setting forth of the glory and majesty of the Son of God sweep away these various forms of error, and there is nothing else in heaven or in earth that can sweep them away.
How is it that Paul presents Jesus Christ to these Colossians, in order to destroy, in root and branch, this dangerous heresy that had become rife among them? Simply in this way: He declares that Jesus Christ is the head of the universe; that he is the Lord of all things; that he is the Creator through whom all things were made; that he is the Sustainer, so that all things, either in the physical or spiritual universe, hold together only in him; that he is the one Revealer of God; that he is the only wisdom and only truth; and that the Colossians, if they have Christ, have all. See how this doctrine applies to each one of the errors to which I allude. The Colossians were claiming that there was a larger wisdom, which might be the possession of a few; that it was something that belonged only to the initiated; that it was something above and beyond what was presented to them in the gospel. Speculation and ascetic practices, they claimed, could put them in possession of this larger and nobler understanding of the truth. How does Paul refute this
error? By declaring to them that Jesus Christ is the wisdom and truth of God; that, if they have Jesus Christ, they have all wisdom and all truth; and that every single person who has Christ has this wisdom and this truth. No exclusiveness at all, absolute universalism of the gospel.
The twenty-eighth verse of the first chapter of the Colossians we often read without understanding the remarkable significance of every word of it. Paul speaks of " admonishing every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, in order that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus." Three times, in that single verse, that phrase "every man" occurs. Admonish every man, teach every man in all wisdom, present every man perfect—here is no confining of wisdom to a few. Every member of the Christian church has a right to the most esoteric teaching that can possibly be given. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are open to all believers. Paul teaches the perfect democracy of the church of God. You that belong to an intellectual caste are establishing a sort of secret society inside of the church. The notion has in it an infinite amount of evil. Admonish every man and teach every man in Christ the true wisdom of God, in order to present every man perfect. No one is to be contented with imperfection. All there is of perfection is open to every member of the church of Christ.
The second great error, as you remember, was that of mediatorship between man and God; angels, principalities, and powers to be reverenced, to be worshiped, and to be made successive steps by which we might reach up to God; in other words, separation of man from God. How does Paul meet that? Why, by telling the Colossians that Jesus Christ is the one and only Mediator between man and God. Are we created by some angel or principality or power, which itself was created by something higher than it, and it created by something higher, and so on through successive sources back to God? Paul replies that there is just one Mediator between man and God, and one Creator, and that Mediator and Creator is Christ. The gulf between man and God is bridged by the one Jesus, our Lord. If we have Christ, we pass over all these mediators. They are thrust out of the way; they have never existed. Christ is the one Mediator; when we have Christ we have direct communion between God and man; and because Christ is God the Creator, God the Sustainer, and God the Revealer, when we come to Christ we come into direct relation to God. "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father," says Christ; and for salvation his prescription is, "Come unto me."
What a blessing it is, my brethren and friends, that instead of being shoved off at a great distance from God and taught that we are to look up to angelic agencies by which we are to reach him, we are told, in this Epistle, that every Christian has direct relations to the divine Christ, and that in Christ he can come into direct communion with God, so that there is nothing any longer to separate him from the holy of holies and from immediate communion with the Father of his spirit!
The last of the errors which I mentioned was practical asceticism and mortification of the body; "touch not, taste not, handle not "; the idea that, by all sorts of restrictions, we are going to commend ourselves to God. That was the doctrine of the Essenes, in Palestine. There is a historical connection between the doctrine of the Essenes and the Colossians of the first century and the Gnostic heresy that sprang from it in the second century. Investigation has shown the connection between these three forms of heretical teaching.
The Essenes, in Palestine, had all these various ideas of which I have spoken. They abjured, for example, the use of flesh, of wine, and of oil; and they rejected marriage. They were inclined to sun-worship, that is, a worship of the heavenly luminary; and they refused to offer bloody sacrifices. They rejected the resurrection of the body, because the body was material. The body was a source of evil; and if they only got rid of the body at death they never wanted it back again. They therefore denied that the body was to rise, or that, in the next world, we were to have a body. These ascetic notions of the Essenes were propagated westward; we find these same notions among the Colossians, to whom Paul writes; and afterward we find these same ideas, more largely developed, in the Gnostics of the second century.
How did Paul meet this doctrine of mortification of the body as the means of perfection? Why, simply by preaching Christ again. Christ is the great Purifier; Christ in the heart is the only Sanctifier. Do you suppose that you can make yourself better by simply putting yourself through bodily mortification and ascetic practices? What you want is perfection within,
purification of the heart. That is accomplished onh by Christ within the soul.
Paul mentions these outward restrictions with a sort of contemptuous tone, " touch not, taste not, handle not," as much as to say that they are of no value whatever, that mere asceticism and will-worship can never purify the flesh. He then turns to the Colossians and says: " If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God," " for ye died and your life is hid with Christ in God." He urges them to put away all manner of evil, because they have Christ in them, and Christ is the very life of their souls.
If there is a sensible doctrine in the world, that is a sensible doctrine, as opposed to the absurd notion that man can somehow make himself better by external mortifications and ablutions and restrictions. So we have Christ, the explanation of all the problems, and the remedy for all the errors of the Colossian church. The remedy for all this intellectual exclusiveness is in Christ, the wisdom of God. The remedy for all this notion of mediators, or agencies, between man and God is the idea of Christ, the one Mediator. The remedy for all this foolish notion of physical mortifications and self-denials is the living Christ within, the only Purifier and Sanctifier of the human spirit.
What a magnificent doctrine this is that Paul preaches to us in the Epistle to the Colossians! In treating it I have followed the order of the apostle. First of all, Paul sets forth the dignity and glory of Christ; then he states that, since we have such a Christ, we ought to beware of being led astray by philosophy
and vain deceit, after the rudiments of the world and not after Christ; and in the concluding chapter, since we have this Christ and all these glorious privileges, he urges us to walk worthily of the gospel which we have received.
In the Epistle to the Colossians we have a yet more general truth intimated to us, namely, the relation between philosophy and religion. There are many men who excuse their unbelief and disobedience with the idea that they have a better philosophy than that which Christianity can furnish. I would like to have you notice the word which Paul uses when he speaks of such philosophy as that. He bids us beware of being led astray by "vain deceit, after the rudiments of this world." Rudiments? What are rudiments? Why, rudiments are nothing but the A, B, C. Just as much as to say: Why, you people, who think you have so much philosophy, have only learned the first letters of the alphabet. You really do not know what philosophy is. The trouble with you is that you keep yourselves in the primary class, when you ought to have a knowledge, not only of the whole alphabet, but of everything that the whole alphabet can spell. Do not content yourself with the rudiments of the world! Do not content yourself with things that can be perceived only with the intellectual eye, while you neglect the things perceived only with the heart. You cannot trust your native reason, your mere intellect, unenlightened by the Spirit of God and unconditioned by a right state of the affections. No man, with the corrupt and perverse nature which he has received from his ancestry, can trust in himself, unaided. He is dependent upon the Spirit of God and upon divine illumination.
A young man, sick with the typhoid fever, was in that peculiar state where some of his perceptions were normal and some abnormal. He was partly rational, and partly irrational. In his state of weakness, life itself depended upon his taking nourishment. His mother came to him and said, "My son, drink this milk." He looked at it a moment and said, "It is black!" The mother replied: "Oh, no, my son, it is not black, this is milk. Drink it, the doctor says you must take it." He looked at it again and said, " No, it is black!" He would not take the milk. He died. Now a perverse heart, a depraved nature, can just as little trust some of its perceptions and notions with regard to God and divine things as that young man could trust the sight of his eyes. Suppose he had said to his mother: " Why, mother, have I not eyes? has not God given me eyes to see with? is there anything more certain than the sight of my eyes? The sight of my eyes declares that it is black." That young man was very foolish. He should have taken into consideration that he was in a state of fever and that, in his deplorable physical condition, his eyes might deceive him. In religion I would a great deal rather trust the word of God than trust perceptions of my perverse spiritual nature; and, if I have notions or beliefs which contradict the word of God, it becomes me to submit my beliefs to the declarations of Christ. That is better wisdom than the fevered philosophy of a man who is in this depraved moral state. So with regard to the relation between philosophy and Christianity. Philosophy has
only a rudimentary knowledge of the truth. Christianity has the whole truth, because it is the whole wisdom of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ.
Paul does not, in the Epistle to the Colossians, speak of any overt acts of immorality on the part of the teachers of false doctrine. But we ought to remember that, in the second century, when these germs had developed and borne fruit, the Gnostics were honeycombed with immorality, and their immorality was of the most degrading description. If teachers of unbelief do not, at present, show the dreadful fruits of false teaching in their' own private lives, those fruits will certainly be shown in time, at least in their disciples. It is only the tree of correct Christian doctrine that bears, in the long run, the fruit of true morality.
Let us be very careful, therefore, to hold the truth of Christ as it is revealed in his word. There is no safety but in accepting Christ as not only the way and the life, but also the truth. This Epistle to the Colossians presents to us Christ as the head of all things to the universe, just as the Epistle to the Ephesians presented to us Christ as the head over all things to the church.