Deviations and counter-attacks
I’ve already spoken on numerous occasions on previous web pages about the commentators’ assertions that the letter to the Colossian believers was primarily put together to combat the false doctrine that was circulating amongst them - even that had already engulfed their fellowship in beliefs that were pulling away from the centrality of the simple Gospel message - and concluded that it’s impossible to say with any real certainty whether this was the case or not.
The letter appears to me to read like a general letter which founds the believers in the centrality of Christ and His work while necessarily undermining and commenting on false beliefs which may or may not have been promoted within their community.
After all, perhaps we should really put ourselves in the place of a modern day apostle (even though some will disagree that such a commodity exists) who’s heard of the response of an area of the world to the message of the Kingdom and who wants to encourage the believers there in the truth of the Way. Why wouldn’t we lay out a sure foundation upon which the church could build while, at the same time, mention dangers and hindrances to a pure and sincere devotion to Christ that were perceived as being particularly prevalent in the region to which we were writing?
Having lived in Sheffield in the UK for around eight years at the time of this writing (and for another five years close by to the city), if I was to find myself elsewhere in the world and was prompted to send a letter back to my home city to encourage those believers who’d been established in faith, I’d necessarily remind them not to be watchers of what others were doing but to be participators in what God was wanting to do through them and in them, into the situations in which they find themselves. The reason being that the churches here have often been ready to respond to support a christian show or series of meetings which haven’t needed any commitment from them except to turn up but have been unwilling to actively contribute in the proclamation of the Gospel.
We like to sit in the audience and cheer the performers, but we don’t feel happy when we find ourselves alone on the stage with a microphone and no backing band! This seems to be the bottom line when we come to the letter to the Colossians, too, for we find no specific statement that upbraids the believers for giving in to false teachings and of straying away from the purity of their belief in the Gospel. Rather, in Col 2:5, the apostle comments that he’s
‘...rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ’
words which can hardly be taken as an observation that the road upon which they began has now been forsaken for another. So, too, Paul’s warning in Col 2:4 that
‘...no one may delude you with beguiling speech’
serves as a reminder not to give in to deceitful words which undermine the Gospel which they’ve already committed themselves to follow - it doesn’t imply that they’re off beam already and need some corrective words to steady the ship and correct the sail to catch the full wind of the Holy Spirit. Colwright is correct in his observation that
‘Paul does not say that the Colossians have already been deceived...’
and is, perhaps, reading between the lines something which is a better interpretation than saying that the false teaching had already taken root when he thinks of the apostle calling upon his years of experience and knowing that
‘...a work of grace is followed by an attack from the enemy...’
giving a much better reason for the purpose of the letter than any assertion that Paul and Timothy were responding to a report from Epaphras (Col 1:7-8) that included the dangers that had already taken root amongst them.
This opening verse also has the effect of giving the readers a reason why they shouldn’t be lead astray, seeing as it more literally should be interpreted that Paul is saying
‘I’ve said that in Jesus are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge so that no one may delude you with beguiling speech’
That is, it’s solely because of the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ that they should take heed not to go after deceptive ideas and teachings which would be supplemental to Him. After all, if Jesus is everything that a believer needs, nothing which exists outside Him can be of any real value or worth. Colcar observes, however, that his comments imply a real and present danger and that they’ve been written
‘...to show the utter contrast between the truth of God and the erroneous speculations of the false teachers’
where Colbrien also seems to presume the presence of false teachers in Colossae who, even at the precise moment the letter is being written, are seeking to undermine the Gospel message. But there’s no indication that such a situation is the correct one and we can understand Col 1:4 better in the context of a general warning than a specific one.
Deviations and counter-attacks
It’s good that we pause for a few moments and think about the way in which a believer might be deviated from a pure devotion and reliance upon Jesus Christ for Paul mentions the possibility almost in passing and has reserved the greatest amount of his words for the proclamation of the right attitude and belief which will undermine such deceitful speech.
And speech it is. Not only does the Gospel come through the spoken word but the deceitful lies which pull away from its truth are also spread by word of mouth. In a world in which we have countless libraries with almost infinite resources for the acquisition of knowledge, we should note that its proclamation in the first century came by speech. The first century wasn’t without it’s literary resources, of course, and the Great Library of Alexandria must rank as one of the greatest repositories of the world’s works - but such a wealth of information wasn’t necessarily available to the common man and, even if it had been, knowing spelling and grammar was always subservient to ploughing the fields and surviving.
Men and women may well check out the things which were being said by recourse to the historical documents of God’s previous works (Acts 17:11) but they aren’t sent away into theological centres of learning that they might be converted to Jesus Christ - rather, by the simple pronouncements of the Gospel, a response comes which starts them on the path of life (Rom 10:17)
Deception also comes through speech, undermining the clear truth which has been previously understood and accepted, and producing thoughts in the mind which produce doubts and confusion. There are two ways such a deception takes place.
The first is by observations which, although they may be true, are then inadvertently used by the believer to question the validity of their own experience and belief. Our starting point should be the example of the temptation in the Garden of Eden that Paul observes in II Cor 11:3 is the danger into which the church is about to fall. He writes that
‘...as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ’
for it’s this arena of the mind that satan would use and stimulate in order to pull the believer away from service to Jesus Christ. We should consider Gen 3:1-7 carefully at this point for we all too easily think that satan was able to put thoughts into Eve’s mind (as we attribute his power in the present day, also, to his glory and our shame of running away from personal responsibility!). All he actually did was to stimulate her thought processes so that they would reason against what God had already spoken to them.
So, in Gen 3:6, Eve begins to think about the words of the serpent (Gen 3:4-5) and to contemplate their possible truth, as she observes truths that support the line of action that it’s trying to coax her in to. She sees that the tree is good for food, a delight to the eyes (that is, beautiful to look at) and also desirable for wisdom.
Her thoughts - all of which were honest assessments of the object which confronted her - prompted her into an action that drew her away from God’s revealed will and purpose for her life. So, too, must the Colossians be on guard in case their considerations of circumstances which are developed from the statements of those who stand opposed to Christ begin to undermine their sincerity of service and pull them away from the all-sufficiency of Christ.
Even more subtlety, though, the stimulation for Eve’s thought processes had only come about through the statements of satan which were both plausible and, more dangerously, half-truths that could be accepted as being the product of the speaker’s sincerity. When satan announces to Eve (Gen 3:4) that
‘You will not die’
he’s not actually lying. All he’s doing is re-interpreting God’s direct words to them (Gen 2:17) in a different manner to that which they were originally intended to be understood. The Biblical record shows that, once they ate, they really didn’t die physically immediately but spiritual death came with a suddenness that they hadn’t expected - the man and woman hid from the presence of God (Gen 3:8) and were cast out away from God’s presence (Gen 3:24).
Again, the serpent is correct when he observes (Gen 3:5) that
‘...your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’
for this is indeed what transpired for they instantly recognised the enormity of what they’d done and had now come to know the difference between good and evil.
However, before they sinned, they knew evil only in theory but, afterwards, by experience. Their innocence was lost forever and it could never be regained. As Paul says in Rom 16:19-20 (my italics)
‘...I would have you wise as to what is good and guileless [that is, innocent] as to what is evil; then the God of peace will soon crush satan under your feet...’
for he ties together innocence in evil with authority over satan, one of things which was lost along with authority over the rest of the created order (see my notes on the ‘Restoration of Creation’ under Part 2 Section 3). Both types of stimulation to man’s thought processes are well summated in Colwright’s statements that one regular or recurring type of attack
‘...is the clever plausibility of teaching near enough to the truth to be apparently respectable and far enough away from it to be devastating in its effects on individuals and congregations’
and I’m reminded of a speaker I once heard who pointed out (whether this be true or not is another matter) that rat poison is 99% good food but it’s the 1% that kills! It’s a remarkably true parable from SofS 2:15 that it’s
‘...the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom’
and the believer must be on his or her guard to face both the truths and observations that cause one to doubt and the half-truths that seek to replace the sincerity of the simple Gospel message. On a few occasions when I’ve spoken in meetings, I’ve asked the believers present whether they would unequivocally accept the statement without further clarification or definition from James 4:7 that believers should
‘Resist the devil and he will flee from you’
and every time to date, the vast majority nod their assent. But, such is the power of deceit in the mind of a cleverly plotting preacher! For the statement falls into the category of ‘beguiling speech’ we’ve discussed above because the lynch-pin of the statement lies in the previous phrase which runs
‘Submit yourselves, therefore, to God...’
for it’s only in so doing this that the believer will ever find the reality of authority over the evil one.
Such is the type of Paul’s warning to the Colossians if expanded wider than his short statement allows. It’s not that the false teaching won’t contain truth but that it deceives the hearer because it seems to be rational and logical, something which appears to be advantageous and worthy of acceptance. Vines gives the meaning of the Greek word behind the RSV’s translation ‘delude you’ (Strongs Greek number 3884) as ‘to reason falsely’ which gives some indication of the force of the arguments - coupled with the following word meaning ‘persuasive talk’, one can see how that which is announced can have a semblance of wisdom which, although false, can appear attractive.
These ideas and teachings, though, begin thought processes which ultimately reject the foundational truths of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
The believer’s guard against such false statements is found in the acceptance of what Paul’s been laying as a foundation throughout his letter to this point and which is referred to at the beginning of Col 2:4 from the clear statement in Col 2:3 that
‘...in Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’
By allowing Jesus Christ to be the pivot upon which the believer’s life turns, they effectively exclude all reason and any argument that detracts from Him. So Colwright (my italics) is perceptive and true to the Scripture when he notes that
‘It is by spurious arguments that such [false] teachers win the day and valid arguments based on the centrality of Jesus Christ are the proper weapons with which to meet them’
and Paul’s statement in II Cor 10:5 (my italics) which has often been understood to mean that, for example, adulterous thoughts must rebuked can be clearly observed to have a proper context and exposition as the arguments of false and deceptive teachers are considered, for the apostle announces that they
‘...destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ’
The thought life is a battlefield in the believer’s life and one that shouldn’t be belittled - but neither should we limit its importance to thoughts which, for instance, contravene the ten commandments or the things which Jesus spoke against in Mtw 5:27-28. Paul is concerned to bring his thoughts into line with the supremacy and all-sufficiency of the One who died and rose again that not one inch of ground might be given over to the evil one that would lead the believer astray from a pure and sincere devotion to Him.
And so on to one of the most difficult of all verses in this letter - difficult because, if taken at face value and with little or no interpretation, it can be employed to yield some peculiar theology which, although supported in one other place in the NT (I Cor 5:3-4), isn’t one of those truths which is loudly and blatantly proclaimed throughout the pages of the first century writings.
Even so, one has to add substantially to Paul’s simple statements in order to arrive at some methodology or structure which fulfils his words, something which NIDNTT readily does as it considers that possibility (in the article on ‘Joy’) that
‘...Paul also thought of man as able, while still in this life, to leave his body temporarily and to project himself through the spiritual realm into the presence of others (I Cor 5:3, Col 2:5) or into Heaven (II Cor 12:2-4...)...’
We should notice not the unacceptability of such a statement according to our own traditional viewpoints (for, in so doing, we would be rejecting a lot of what’s in the Scriptures but which undermines our own theological framework) but the additions which have to be made to make the verses fit.
For example, man is given control over his own spirit at his own behest and to travel about to destinations that he so desires, being able (for a reason that doesn’t go mentioned in the NT) to enter the ‘spiritual realm’ (whatever that might be) and, presumably, to travel back again. It’s all a bit like astral projection or something more akin to Hollywood’s recent attempts at causing its characters to traverse virtually real worlds where their presence in imaginary situations always turns out to be as real as their own - until, of course, you realise that their own world was just as imaginary and there exists a real real world that’s only introduced into the plot with twenty minutes or so left til the finale (that’s the ‘Thirteenth Floor’ in case anyone’s wondering, by the way. I’ve spoiled the plot for you now, haven’t I?).
Paul’s entrance into Paradise is also made out to be something which the apostle seems to have been in control of, even though he’s careful to speak of himself being ‘caught up’ and of being unsure as to exactly what state he was in - that is, he couldn’t be sure whether he was in the body or out of it (something which, if he was intending going somewhere by his own supernatural powers, he should really have known in what state he was in - after all, if we get on the train for Liverpool, we have to assume that our destination upon arrival is the place we’ve been headed for and that we’re their either mystically or in reality. Unless, of course, we’re travelling British Rail and then anything’s possible - but that’s another story...).
So, although Paul says he’s present, he doesn’t point towards the process or whether his experience is part of the blessing of the New Covenant that Jesus Christ came to bring to all mankind. And therein lies the problem for the commentator for, try as we might to explain it with direct support from other NT Scriptures, we seem to be at a loss to do so.
As I’ve said on a few occasions, the mark of a great commentator is to ignore the difficult passages or to paraphrase them in such a way as to make the reader think that one knows what one’s saying even though all that’s being done is a restating of the scarcity of what’s in the passage itself. Falling into this spiritual elite of ‘great’ at this point, then, are no less than Cormor, Colcar, Colwright and Colbruce and it’s left to the real dregs of interpreters such as Colbrien, Corfee and myself to get the rope, form the noose and allow the world to hang us for our crass exposition!
What then, should we understand by both I Cor 5:3-4 and Col 2:5, the latter of which has Paul stating clearly that
‘...though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit...’
A verse which may serve us in getting to grips with the interpretation is I Thess 2:17 which the RSV translates
‘...since we were bereft of you, brethren, for a short time, in person not in heart...’
and which Phillips translates (or paraphrases) as
‘...since we have been physically separated from you, my brothers (though never for a moment separated in heart)...’
We could understand Col 2:15 as meaning much the same as this passage - that the apostle, away from the church at Thessalonica, yearned to be amongst them, desiring to be in their midst once more and to impart some blessing to them. The English saying
‘Out of sight is out of mind’
is a similar phrase though in the negative form. Paul wrote that, even though the Thessalonians were ‘out of sight’. they were ever present ‘in his mind’ and his desire was to swap his thought for the substance. But, having said this, the context of Col 2:5 pulls us away from taking such an interpretation and not only because Paul had never visited them before (Col 2:1) so it would be hard to imagine how a desire to rekindle that which had never existed could be what he was expressing.
Besides, the entire verse reads
‘...I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ’
He’s saying that he has first hand evidence of the state of the fellowship because he’s with them ‘in spirit’, not just because he’s had Epaphras run through the things that have been transpiring in their midst (Col 1:8).
Similarly, in I Cor 5:3-4, where the same thought occurs, Paul writes (my italics) that
‘When you are assembled and my spirit is present...’
where the obvious meaning is that the apostle stands amongst them when they come together as a group of the Lord’s people. In the OT too, though, the concept is present and we should pay attention to its occurrence in II Kings 5:26 where Elisha is able to say to his servant
‘Did I not go with you in spirit when the man turned from his chariot to meet you?’
because he’d witnessed Gehazi’s actions through the presence of his own spirit. However, to jump to the conclusion from this statement that a believer’s spirit may travel at will all over the known world would be to invent an experience that has no specific statement as proof.
But a believer’s spirit is united to God’s (I Cor 6:17) and it’s God’s Spirit that’s present wherever and whenever the Church comes together (Mtw 18:20). What Paul experienced (that is, seeing their good order and the firmness of their faith in Christ) had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit - God’s Spirit being the ‘go-between’ who stands as the connecting link between fellow believers. He was able to judge their maturity - not by his presence so much (though he was there in God’s Spirit) as by the Holy Spirit’s presence in their midst.
Even though Epaphras would have been able to tell Paul the state of the church (Col 1:8), it was further confirmed to him by what he was to know by the Spirit. Colbrien quotes Otto at this point as writing that
‘...[the apostle] believed that he was capable of operating spiritually at a distance’
and, though this is more attributable to the I Corinthians passage, it could equally well be understood as relevant here. On this matter, we also need to clarify the intended meaning of I Cor 5:3-4 before we move on. The passage is saying that Paul will be allied with their actions when they meet together as a fellowship to enforce discipline. Having ‘already pronounced judgment’ means that the apostle has already decided Jesus’ will in the matter so that the Spirit’s presence is the same as him being present in their midst - the Holy Spirit and Paul are in unity over the issue and all he’s prayed will be enforced by the Spirit in their meeting.
It may be worthwhile to stop and consider why Paul might have felt the need to speak this way to two very different churches. In I Corinthians, his word appears in a corrective capacity but, by contrast, the mention of his presence in Colossians occurs as a method of encouraging them to continue on in the faith they have.
Corfee hints at a reason, however, in the former passage which could equally well be applied in Colossae. The mention of his presence being in their midst might well refer back to the statement of I Cor 4:18 (my italics) where he observes that
‘Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you’
Even though his opponents seem to be content to pull against his authority in matters pertaining to the Way, perhaps even presuming that the apostle wasn’t to return their way again, nevertheless he’s with them when they meet. His statement thus serves the fellowship as a reminder that, though absent in body, he’s still very much a participant in their meetings.
Such a background could also be expected in the church at Colossae - not that there were those who were undermining Paul’s authority or who were seeking to trouble the fellowship (even though Colbrien states that ‘If [Paul] were present at Colossae he would deal with this menacing situation in person’) but that his bodily presence in their midst had been lacking since the first day that they’d been responding to the message of the Gospel (Col 2:1).
However, now Paul speaks about his knowledge of their obedience to the message of Christ by his presence in their midst by his spirit - that he was assured in his own spirit that everything was going well with them because this was the testimony of God’s Spirit within him.
In both cases, then, the apostle’s presence is only mentioned because of problems which could be associated with his absence.
Having now provided a framework for the interpretation of Paul’s statement that he’s present in their midst by his spirit that’s in keeping with the general thrust of the teaching of the New Testament, we can move on to look at Paul’s response to those things which he perceives as going on within the fellowship.
Perhaps we might even say that it’s sometimes better not to be physically present in a meeting where what takes place can so easily mask the moving of God’s presence - certainly, in some of the meetings that I’ve been in, the exuberance and excitement of the coming together hasn’t been matched by any witness within that what’s taking place is both pleasing to God and bringing about His purposes.
This might sound strange to write, I confess, but we should never judge by external appearances at the expense of what, inwardly, we know to be contradictory - better is a meeting of a handful of people who allow the Spirit to lead them into a place of his own choosing than a meeting of thousands strong where God’s battered and buffeted into taking them a way that would be to their own detriment.
So perhaps Paul is actually at an advantage by not being present.
Colbruce, unfortunately, sees Paul’s observations of what’s taking place in their midst as explainable purely through natural means. He writes that
‘The contemplation of the Colossians’ faith and conduct gives him the utmost pleasure: so vivid, we may infer, was the picture of their life and character which he had received from Epaphras’
and he thus strips the apostle’ supernatural assessment of the situation as being the result solely of a previous testimony (Col 1:7-8). But we should, rather, see the report from Epaphras as being witnessed within his own spirit as being something which was both true and accurate - in this case, what Paul states in Col 1:5 as being the state of the fellowship isn’t drawn from what he’s heard but comes from the testimony of the Holy Spirit in support of and in agreement with the reports which have reached him.
Paul’s observations, then, cause him to rejoice because he perceives (which is better than the word ‘see’ here considering the manner in which the information has come to him)
‘...your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ’
The two Greek words which give the RSV ‘good order’ (Strongs Greek number 5010) and ‘firmness’ (Strongs Greek number 4733) are both words which could be used in a military setting and Colwright takes their use as being indicative of the church as a military unit
‘...drawn up in proper battle array with a solid wall of defence, namely its faith in Christ’
where Colbrien cites other Greek sources to show the former as denoting
‘...the positions which soldiers occupy...the latter describing a bulwark or fortification...’
It’s tempting to accept the metaphors as being clear in the apostle’s mind and that, thinking of the possible attack from external (or, perhaps, internal) sources (Col 2:4), his comments are particularly relevant - that is, it’s only if the church sets itself out as carrying on a military campaign that they’ll be able to successfully repel the attack which could come at any time.
Having said that, both words seem to only take on a military meaning in other Greek passages when the context demands it and not when they stand alone with no context to colour their use. Colcar, on the other hand, sees the main thrust of ‘good order’ to be ‘an ordered arrangement’ and for ‘firmness’, the underlying idea of ‘strength’ which secures the possessor into an immovable position.
Just how we might understand the Colossians ‘good order’ is difficult about which to be certain, however. Colbrien sees it as being an observation of their
‘...well-ordered christian behaviour of the community...’
while Colcar links it back to a previous observation by Paul in Col 1:4 in which he gives thanks for having heard about
‘...the love which you have for all the saints’
Colcar’s position, however, confuses the issue for Paul specifically notes that he’s heard about their love but, here, that he’s rejoicing to see their good order - the two can hardly be expected to be parallels.
In all, the Greek word is used just ten times in the NT and in eight of these, it’s employed to refer to the order of the priesthood (Luke 1:8, Heb 5:6,10, 6:20, 7:11 [x2],17,21), a much more relevant way to interpret it than as a borrowed military term - even so, it still doesn’t give it too much of a meaning in the present context.
In I Cor 14:39-40, however, having spoken concerning the free-for-all that was taking place in the fellowship meetings, Paul summarises (my italics) by writing
‘...earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order’
where it’s the meeting’s organisation which is in view to allow the Spirit to move but also to restrict manifestations of the flesh. The word ‘organisation’ is a dangerous one amongst believers when applied to church meetings simply because more often than not the ‘structure’ of a meeting is such that God has little or no freedom of movement.
At the other extreme, man’s freedom becomes overly excessive to the point of destroying what God wants to do in their midst. At the risk of being misunderstood, then, we should certainly employ the phrase ‘good order’ to be a description of a church meeting and, in the context in which it’s used here (that is, Paul is present in their midst - implying that his presence is there in the context of their coming together), it seems the more likely that the apostle means to be understood as commenting on the way their meetings work out and not as commentators would imagine it to be a comment on their moral lifestyle.
The ‘firmness of your faith’ speaks of the solidity of the Colossians’ experience, another indication that the warning of Col 1:4 should be taken as a general one and not as a problem which Paul was already aware had infiltrated their fellowship. It’s their strength of faith, then, that the apostle can testify to in his own spirit, something which assures him that the fellowship is being faithful to God the Father.
So far, then, although there’s been a mention of the danger of false teaching which would undermine the all sufficiency of Jesus Christ, there’s nothing in the letter that would indicate that the church has battened down all the hatches and is struggling to resist an advancing enemy that’s gained the upper hand.
The fellowship looks healthy, strong and faithful.
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