Paul Attacks Enduring Heresy

by Wayne Barber

Paul Attacks Enduring Heresy

In our last issue we looked at the People and the Place to whom Paul wrote Colossians. We are in a series called the "The Purpose of the Church." In this article we want to look at the Problem the churches of Colosse, Laodicea, and Hieropolis were facing.

Paul says in Colossians 2:1 that he "struggled" on their behalf. The Greek word for struggle is agon, which refers to the agony that Paul went through for them-most likely the "agony" he felt when praying for them in intense intercession.

You see, there was a battle for the believers' minds in Colosse. The reason for Paul's struggle on behalf of the believers in Colosse primarily was the Gnostic heresy that had threatened every believer there. "Gnosticsm" or "Gnostic" is simply that which refers to "knowledge." It was supposedly a way to achieve salvation without Christ. This particular brand of Gnosticsm was strange in that it incorporated both Jewish teachings and Greek philosophical thought. But in every aspect, it denied the deity and the sufficiency of Christ.

Let me explain why this heresy was so different: The root teaching of Gnosticsm was that all matter is evil. Therefore they sought to conquer the imperfections of the body. They believed that if a man could conquer the evil in his body he could enter perfection, because the body was the prison house of the soul. As they reasoned that Jesus Christ could have never had a human body (since He was holy, but all flesh was evil), this effectively eliminated Christ as our Redeemer.

Two opposing camps in Gnostic thought developed over the issue of how to deal with our evil body. One held that the way to conquer the body was through extreme self-denial. This was known as asceticsm. The other group taught that since the body had nothing to do with the soul and was worthless, whatever was done in the body had no effect on the soul at all. This was licentiousness.

We don't see much of the latter teaching in the error that was invading Colosse, but we do see ascetism. This is where the Jewish legalism fitted nicely into their thinking: Deny the flesh; discipline the flesh; punish the flesh; and make it observe the Law.

What interests me is that so much of what we deal with still today was involved in these two philosophies. As I studied, I saw that this strange brand of Gnostic heresy involved three well-known very current traps. Each of these attack the "sufficiency of Christ." First, there was the religious trap, then there was the intellectual trap, and then the emotional trap.

The religious trap can be seen in Paul's references to Jewish laws such as circumcision, food regulations, and feast days (Col. 2:11-17). Notice that Paul first exalts Christ as the only way of salvation and illustrates what happened to us when we were saved: "and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ..." (When Christ came to live in us, He not only paid the penalty for our sin, but He broke the power of sin in our lives.) "...having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions…."

Then in verse 16 and 17, Paul rejects the Jewish laws: "Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day, things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ."

Verses 20-23 amply demonstrate the combination of Jewish law and Gnostic ascetism: "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!' (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)-in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence."

This was the religious trap. Next month we will look at the intellectual and emotional traps. What trap have you fallen into that has taken your eyes off the sufficiency of Christ in you?