The basis of false judgments
2. The worship of angels
4. Puffed up without reason
The basis of true growth
As I wrote on the previous web page, these two verses seem to be highlighting more about the Gentile response to the believers than directly about any Jewish response which is clearly evident in Col 2:16-17.
It’s not that these two verses are only capable of a setting within a pagan religion but that they could be equally well applied to both Jew and Gentile as an overflow of those spiritual principles that were held.
Paul begins in a very similar vein to Col 2:16 and, if we were to remove the ‘therefore’, we can see the similarities which are well represented by the RSV’s translations. The Greek runs slightly differently here, though, and shows some variation of phraseology, the apostle writing in Col 2:16 something more akin to
‘Let not anyone judge you...’
and, in Col 2:18
‘Let no one give judgment against you...’
where the phrase ‘not anyone’ becomes ‘no one’ and the two verbs are complimentary ways of speaking about judgment and disqualification. The word used in Col 2:18 (Strongs Greek number 2603), though, has a wider range of meaning and was used in the games arena to describe the action of an umpire or referee in disqualifying a runner from receiving a prize, the literal translation being ‘to umpire against’, a compound of the two elements which are here brought together and used only this once in the NT.
The related words, however, are used in the NT. In I Cor 9:24 and Phil 3:14, the Greek word for a prize in the games is employed (Strongs Greek number 1017) and, in Col 3:15, the verb which denotes the action of being an umpire is also employed and which is used in the compound word of Col 1:18 (Strongs Greek number 1018). Colwright contrasts the two words employed at the beginning of Col 2:16 and 2:18 by noting that
‘If the target of v.16 was a self-appointed judge, here it is a self-appointed umpire who might declare that the Colossians were not playing the game according to the rules...’
where the main reason for the use of the two words isn’t so much to summon up the imagery of the arena but to emphasise the nature of the appointment as being earthly in origin and, therefore, irrelevant to their spiritual and heavenly relationship to God the Father. Colbruce also notes that the underlying meaning of the word in all the passages where it’s been positively identified as occurring in ancient Greek is
‘...the idea of depriving someone of something which he or she would otherwise have possessed...’
but this seems to be too much linked with an action that destroys the Colossians’ relationship with God, rather than only a verbal pronouncement which states as much. Although the imagery of the umpire who disqualifies the competitor is a valid one, the apostle isn’t going so far as to say that this is, in effect, what these people do but, rather, that this is what they would like to do and their pronouncements indicate as much. Therefore, Colcar’s assessment of the meaning is probably the best for he writes that
‘...it would be most appropriate here to see the heretical teachers assuming to themselves the position of arbiters and disqualifying the Colossian believers for failing to keep their ritualistic rules’
so that those who ‘umpire against’ are the ones who are judging according to their own rules and not according to God’s. Indeed, whatever they might decide and announce is of no worth because it’s based upon principles which are worthless in coming to a truthful considered opinion.
Whether Paul expects his readers to understand his meaning as being an image of the sports arena, then, is difficult to be certain about for he may simply be using the word as an alternative to the one employed in Col 1:16 (as a good writer would do to avoid his literary work from becoming tedious) and so means the reader to understand nothing much more than the idea of judgment.
Perhaps it’s best to remove all thought of the sports arena in case we might think of the umpires carrying with them the power to remove the Colossians from the prize which they’ve already been given by God Himself and, rather, interpret the word to mean, as Colbrien takes it, as ‘to condemn’.
Paul’s teaching, then, is that the believers shouldn’t allow themselves to listen or give heed to the pronouncements that others might be making against them, the reasons being - as he now goes on to list - that the grounds for their objections are unstable and dangerous (self-abasement, worship of angels and visions).
Having channel-hopped this morning through the christian satellite programs as I tend to do (the reader will probably know from other places how this seems to be about the most I ever do with christian broadcasting channels), I came across a lady who was urging her listeners not to give in to their own reasoning to guide them in to what they should do in a situation.
I didn’t stay tuned in long enough to hear what she thought the alternative was but I guess that she will have been insisting that individuals communicate with God directly and ignore what they consider their own response should be. Although this does have a semblance of wisdom (for we shouldn’t use worldly wisdom or earthly logic to determine our course of action), Paul does use lengthy reasonings in his letters, grounding the believers in truth so that they might know what it is that God requires from them.
While revelation is one of the cornerstones of the believer’s walk, one has to balance that with his words here which teach the Colossians not to listen to those people who, through visionary experiences, declare to them something which undermines sound reason and solid teaching.
We must also be careful, then, when we hear of visions and revelations which undermine our position in Christ and which bring about the condemnation of the true believer. Such manifestations are certainly not from God and only seek to pull believers away from a pure and sincere devotion to Jesus Christ. Paul was careful to make sure that the churches of Galatia understood that the Gospel was to be adhered to no matter what sort of revelation might be made known to them either by something subsequent which they might say or from an angelic source (Gal 1:8).
Clearly, then, there is reasoning and knowledge which must be held fast to and which will guide our own actions and reactions in everyday life.
The twin aspects of the source of false judgments and the true growth which become Paul’s instructions in the remaining words of these two verses. On the one hand, he goes on to look at the source of wrong assessments of spiritual life in God and, on the other, shows how the Body of Christ builds itself up when securely related to Jesus, receiving from Him all that’s needed for development.
We’ll now turn our attention to these two aspects.
The basis of false judgments
Surprisingly - for me, at least - was Colbrien’s statement at the opening of his comments on this verse in which he states that
‘This verse has been described as one of the most contested passages in the NT, presenting great difficulties in language and content...’
but it would seem that clear-cut definitions of what the false religion is are what causes the dilemma amongst commentators - and this probably in part because we’re trying too hard at making a consistent theology of a single false religion that we envisage as being the danger that was, even now, seeking to gain an infiltration into the Colossians’ ranks.
There are, however, very real problems with some of the words here employed by Paul and we shouldn’t belittle the difficulties - but, as the reader will note, sometimes what appears to be fairly straightforward becomes all the more complicated because it seems inconceivable to the commentator that Paul could include such a definition within the overall framework of a single religion which is seen as the danger.
As I’ve said previously on numerous occasions, there was nothing wrong with the Colossian fellowship (Col 2:5) and Paul’s statements concerning what might be presenting them with difficulty is couched in language which doesn’t insist on there being an inside knowledge of any particular sect in question. Rather, the apostle’s statements are capable of being understood as general warnings drawn from his experience of the dangers which had confronted believers in the Ephesian area and which he witnessed were certain to be present in the city to which he was writing.
General statements concerning the characteristics of those who would condemn and disqualify the believers may be all that’s really necessary at this point, even though we can single out certain ‘known’ sects and cults as being represented by them.
The opening Greek statement is rendered by the RSV as ‘insisting on’ but commentators are certainly divided as to what’s the best way to render this phrase which occurs only here in the NT. Colwright speaks of it as being ‘Semitic-sounding’, the implication being that it may have been more of a concept borrowed from another culture’s language such as Aramaic or Hebrew and placed here to try and represent what the author wanted to say.
Colbrien identifies it with a Hebrew phrase which occurs in the OT on several occasions (for example, I Sam 18:22) and which means ‘delight in’ and this seems to be the best way of taking the phrase. It isn’t that the people condemning the believers in Colossae ‘insist’ (as the RSV) that they follow their own example (as in the case of an attempted conversion) but they’re generally rejoicing and delighting in their own experience of self-abasement and of worshipping angels as part of their own religious observances in contrast to the believers’ lack.
In this case, the Colossians might well wonder whether they have the ‘true’ religion when they lack the normally accepted expressions of humility that may well have been accepted as integral parts of correct belief.
The phrase ‘delighting in self-abasement’, however, is almost a misnomer - certainly it’s a bad selection of two words to be united together as a phrase and probably done very deliberately by Paul to show the believers the fallacy of such an attitude. As Jesus taught the disciples (not those who weren’t following Him - Mtw 5:1) in Mtw 6:16-18
‘...when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward’
Jesus doesn’t go so far as to say that they danced around the place as they humbled themselves openly but this doesn’t mean that Paul’s words are irrelevant here. That the condemners gloried in their self-abasement means that it wasn’t being kept private between themselves and God but was an integral part of their words of objection against the believers. Their humility was, therefore, obviously false and, as Colcar writes
‘...a humility in which one delights is obviously no humility at all’
for delight should be centred in God alone. The same Greek word translated by ‘lowliness’ in the RSV occurs in Col 3:12 (Strongs Greek number 5012) but there it’s used in a positive fashion of the characteristics of the new nature which should be allowed to adorn the believer. It’s only the context of the word in Col 2:18 which shows it up for what it is - an outward expression of a life which isn’t centred upon God and which lifts its adherent up above others and into the place where others are condemned. This is probably why the RSV prefers the term ‘self-abasement’ because it carries with it more of a negative overtone but Colbrien’s ‘self-denial’ is, perhaps, a better rendering for the negative aspect of what these people do is more effectively being described by Paul when he speaks about them ‘delighting in’ their own humility.
Colwright comes out with a curious statement which is difficult to assess. He writes that
‘The word [for ‘self-abasement’] is used in some Jewish writings almost as a synonym for the fasting which in some disciplines was believed to induce heavenly visions’
and noting that the Jerusalem Bible’s translation expresses this interdependence when it renders the verse as speaking about people
‘...who like grovelling to angels and worshipping them’
Colbrien also sees the verses here as ‘cause and effect’ and writes that
‘...the apostle is stating that the advocates of the Colossian philosophy delighted in ascetic practices as a prelude to the reception of heavenly visions’
The reason why Colwright’s words are such a curious statement is that the commentator seems to be inferring that the Greek word employed here is used in Jewish writings and that seems difficult to comprehend if contemporary to the first century. Still, without a cited source, it’s impossible to check out but, if fasting was used to achieve a vision from Heaven, it’s more in-keeping with the third of the four characteristics (‘taking his stand on visions’ - something that is actually related to the first two as we’ll see below) rather than necessarily having to be linked simply with an individual’s service and adoration of angelic beings (‘the worship of angels’).
2. The worship of angels
Little needs to be said about the phrase ‘the worship of angels’ but we need to remember that the phrase ‘delight in’ applies equally here as it does to ‘self-abasement’. The fact that such people could elevate the worship of heavenly mediators over and above that of the worship of the one, true God must surely pull us away from thinking of them as Jews - that is, if we accept Paul’s words as being able to be summated as specifically directed at one particular sect - which, I doubt.
It seems best to accept the description to be speaking of a more pagan type of religion which saw intermediaries as the object of their service in order that they might ascend into the heavenly realm. As Paul has already stated clearly, Jesus Christ is the Creator of all things (Col 1:16) so that the people’s response can only be directed at those things which are secondary.
When the Colossians come before Jesus, they come before the One who sits in control over those beings which their opponents serve and there can be no logical necessity for them to think that they need to bow the knee to those who are less than He who rules Heaven and earth.
Commentators, however, have taken the phrase ‘the worship of angels’ not as what the most obvious interpretation seems to demand but in a variety of manners in order that some attempt at assessing the type of religion that’s being opposed might be performed.
Colwright notes three such possibilities which we won’t go into in any length but they do need to be noted before we move on. That there are records of groups of men and women who gave themselves over to the worship of angels in contemporary records is as good an indication as any that the more straightforward interpretation is possible. The commentator, however, speaks of this option as being not
‘...satisfactory as a background for the chapter as a whole’
but this could only be levelled at an interpretation which sees Paul as already knowing the group from which opposition is either being expected or has already started. The second takes the phrase not as meaning that man worships angels but that the type of worship which the angels offer to God is the same type which men and women should participate in, evidenced by citing certain of the scrolls from Qumran and ‘post-Biblical Judaism’.
The final possibility takes Paul’s words as ironic in nature and not to be taken literally, the apostle being given the intention of accusing the opponents that the Jews were so hung up on angelic manifestations through the giving of the Law that he felt it more appropriate to summate it as the worship of angelic beings rather than of a pure worship of God.
Colwright prefers the latter possibility but it seems the least likely simply because it has to accepted that Paul turns ‘ironic’ and not factual in mid-stream and risks his readers accepting it as a literal observation. The second point is also difficult to accept at this time simply because the sources cited aren’t known to me to be those which originated outside the land of Israel but refer to the practices of sects within Judaism and which were resident within the land.
I’m quite happy to be corrected on this matter but it seems to me that the most obvious interpretation of the phrase ‘worship of angels’ is that which takes it to mean that the potential objectors to the Colossian believers were too busy serving the servants and not following the Master of all - of worshipping the Creation rather than going straight to the Creator, Jesus Christ.
In this case, the opposition mentioned at this point is more likely to have been Gentile in origin than Jewish and gives us good reason to suppose that Paul hasn’t one particular sect in mind but is speaking generally about all sorts of opposition which may seek to undermine the Colossians’ commitment to Jesus Christ.
We come to a most problematical phrase which the RSV renders
‘taking his stand on visions’
and so causes it to seem to be the third in a list of characteristics of the false teaching which was a threat to the Colossian fellowship. Colwright observes that the RSV ‘gives up the attempt’ at rendering the difficult word and simply gives ‘a different meaning altogether’. Having had a little time to think about the Greek word that lies behind ‘taking his stand’, one can’t help but accept his viewpoint for whatever justification there was seems to have been lost.
A more literal translation, however, doesn’t seem to make any sense. Colwright notes that the NEB renders it as literally as possible by its
‘people who...try to enter into some vision of their own’
but even this interprets the Greek to be referring to ‘visions’ which it may not be doing. It also causes the reader to infer that Paul is speaking about men and women who push themselves into receiving visions by their own actions. Colbrien, on the other hand, gives the sense as
‘...which he has seen upon entering’
thus leaving the possibility of a visionary experience to be the interpretation of the reader rather than to force such a meaning upon them. This is, perhaps, the best translation of all even if it’s so ambiguous or unclear as to what it means as to beg the question whether it’s worth including at all.
It seems to me that, having now read some brief explanations of the possibilities, that the interpretation placed upon the text is inextricably linked with the type of false teaching that the commentator expects was being written against. As we saw in the previous section, it was possible to accept the phrase ‘worship of angels’ as meaning something which had its roots in Judaism but only if one expected that the dangers being exposed were all Jewish in origin. It seemed better to take the phrase in its most natural sense and place it firmly into a Gentile context in contrast to Col 2:16-17 which necessarily must be Jewish.
Although there’s absolutely nothing certain about any interpretation placed upon this phrase, Colbruce seems to have been able to set the problematical Greek word (Strongs Greek number 1687) back into its original first century context by reference to Dibelius and Ramsay’s independent work at the beginning of the twentieth century. He writes that
‘...almost simultaneously, [they] recognised that the verb was used [in Col 2:18] in a sense which it bore in recently published inscriptions from the sanctuary of Apollo at Claros, a few miles northwest of Ephesus. The effect of the verb...depends on the fact that it was a religious term familiar to his Phrygian readers...Strictly speaking, it does not denote the initiation itself [into the mystery religions] but the next stage, entering the sacred area in order to see the mysteries’
and so he goes on to render the phrase
‘the things which he has seen at his initiation’
where he notes that the experience would have been consequential to the initiation and so justifies mention of it. It would therefore relate back to both ‘self-abasement’ and ‘worship of angels’ and define both phrases as being those things which had been seen once he’d received
‘...his higher experience like someone being admitted to secret rites from which the vulgar mob was excluded, and was now appealing to that superior enlightenment in support of his teaching’
Colbrien speaks of this view as having ‘serious weaknesses’ but, in my opinion, it sets the phrase into a better cultural context than all the other considerations. We may take the mention of these things ‘seen’ as ‘visions’, also, which seems to be the best way to interpret the statement, so that the truths of the Gospel are being undermined by those who would allow themselves to be securely founded upon an experience.
Of course, the believer in Christ also has experience and it mustn’t be asserted as is so often the case today that a relationship with God majors on ‘facts for faith’ - both facts and experience are integral parts of the walk with Jesus and both spring from revelation and the corrective words of Scripture which show the reader both what’s right and wrong.
So, in summary, the idea of a visionary experience appears to be correct but it’s also true that it seems to have been received from an experience of the mystery religions that’s used as the basis of the condemnation of those believers in Christ.
4. Puffed up without reason
This phrase stands as a counterpoint to the following observations of Col 1:19 in which Paul will go on to look at the way true believers are to grow into Christ and, therefore, perhaps we would have done better not to separate the sections. It does serve as a good conclusion or summary of the three phrases which have preceded it, however, which is why it’s worth being considered in its own right and in that context.
Colwright’s summary of Paul’s intention in writing what he did here is particularly relevant for he sees him as dragging
‘...the false worship back down to earth where it belongs’
and placing it on a purely natural plain. Even though the people were to condemn the Colossian believers through their own spiritual experiences, the apostle insists that they’re doing nothing more than assessing heavenly realities by recourse to earthly wisdom and reasoning. Again, Colwright’s thoughts concerning a present day application are worth reading for he speaks about it being
‘...pertinent to christians living in a rationalistic age who may be tempted to regard a wide variety of paranormal or supernatural occurrences as somehow “spiritual”’
and the reader will, hopefully, already realise that the ‘experiences’ of those unbelievers around them who point to astrological coincidences or manifestations of spirits in their own experience are simply interpreting what occurs with their own natural mind.
This isn’t to say that what ‘happens’ isn’t very real and, on occasions, a manifestation of some supernatural power that’s opposed to God Himself, but that it receives an interpretation through the considerations of a mind that isn’t set upon the things of God and so, consequently, can’t be expected to ever arrive at a correct assessment.
The reason for such an irrational approach to experience, then, is through being ‘puffed up’ (Strongs Greek number 5448), a word that one would have expected to have been used almost exclusively of the unbeliever but which only occurs here with just such an application. All the other places where it’s used, it refers to the believer and is also only ever employed in the two letters to the Corinthians (I Cor 4:6, 4:18, 4:19, 5:2, 8:1, 13:4, II Cor 12:20)!
Of course, the Corinthians probably never thought of themselves as conceited because they were already perfect (!) but Paul uses it of the way in which they were causing divisions to occur in the fellowship which were destroying the life of God amongst them.
He speaks of this puffing up as being the reason why some were considering themselves as greater than others (I Cor 4:6), having to tell them that such divisions amongst themselves were pointless for all that they have is only what they were given and not what they naturally achieved (I Cor 4:7).
In one of the well-known passages (I Cor 8:1-2), he also notes that
‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up’
going on to undermine their cerebral arguments by noting that, if they really were proclaiming themselves to have true knowledge in the manner they were, then it was a clear indication that they didn’t have such knowledge - simply because, it seems likely, true knowledge isn’t boastful and arrogant in nature, seeking to undermine another’s relationship with God.
And this self-elevation or conceit is, as Kittels defines the word (Strongs Greek number 1500)
‘without basis or reason’
because it emanates from his fleshy mind (literally ‘the mind of his flesh’ where the RSV renders the phrase ‘his sensuous mind’). This phrase means something akin to unregenerate thought processes and reasoning and is probably closest in meaning to a similar phrase that Paul uses elsewhere in Rom 8:7 where he observes that
‘...the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot’
where his observations are only general in nature. However, in I Cor 3:1-4, Paul calls the believers to task and states that he couldn’t consider them as spiritual men but as ‘men of the flesh’, as ‘babes in Christ’
‘...For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving like ordinary men? For when one says “I belong to Paul” and another “I belong to Apollos” are you not merely men?’
So, the same ‘puffing up’ which had caused the divisions amongst the Corinthians is seen to be a manifestation of the mind which is set on the flesh, of the life that’s lived out from purely earthly considerations and not fixed securely on heavenly realities.
Reasoning is a very important aspect in the believer’s life (and I mentioned above about something I heard on satellite television as I was putting these notes together) but it isn’t reasoning per se which is universally accepted as being pleasing and acceptable to God. It’s only the mind which is set upon heavenly realities and not upon earthly considerations that can possibly think in tune with God’s purposes.
Here in Col 1:18 the idea is that earthly reasoning is the root cause of self-elevation and that, for this reason, there will be opposition to the fellowship from men and women such as these. In the case of the Corinthians, such opposition to the Gospel actually came from within the fellowship because, claiming that they had grown spiritually mature, they began making decisions which were devoid of a sound spiritual basis.
Here’s a warning not just for the Colossian believers, then - or even for us as present day followers of Christ - that earthly reasoning may come against us in the form of spiritual proclamations. But that we may find ourselves operating from an earthly perspective as we elevate ourselves up to a position in which we consider others to be significantly below the point at which we’ve arrived.
The basis of true growth
I might be the only one amongst those reading these notes, I admit, but I find it strange that Paul should switch from a denunciation of false teaching and experience to announce that the reason for their error is that they’re not holding fast to the Head, a label which is best taken as a reference to Jesus Christ. The implication in my own mind when I first read the verse is that those being referred to had lessened their grip on the Source of all-sufficiency and had gone after other experiences which satisfied them more.
This is quite possible, of course, but the implication if taken this way is that Paul primarily has in mind those who were nominally believers and who had never fully affixed themselves to Christ with total dependence upon Him for everything. Colcar follows this line of reasoning also, stating that the individual (I’m not certain that Paul has anyone in mind as I’ve previously stated and his words still read like generalisations)
‘...has loosened [his hold] so much that he may be classed as an apostate...It is...one who has been outwardly numbered among the members of the body but who has never been in vital union with the Head...’
If this is the case - and ‘reading between the lines’ is never good theology! - then the observations of Col 2:18 are attempts by Paul to wake the believers up to a pure commitment to Jesus Christ and for them to be careful to either leave behind their old manner of life or not to wander into superfluous experiences which do nothing to build them into Jesus Christ.
However, I tend to think that this is simply a wrong impression that comes from the translation - the problem being not with the translation but with me, I hasten to add! The verse simply observes that their error stems from the fact that they’re separated from Jesus Christ and there’s no definitive statement which says that they were, at one time, joined and in fellowship with Him and that, somehow, they’ve gone away from union with Him.
Paul is simply contrasting their operation ‘in the flesh’ through the decisions and pronouncements which come by their irrational thoughts (see the last section) with the true way which holds fast to Jesus Christ and allows Him to be the source of all necessary provision and information, that the body of believers might grow together.
Colbrien, although interpreting Paul’s words as a specific warning against a known danger, does comment that it’s also possible that the words employed here are an indication that the problem may reside in men and women who take upon themselves the name of brother and who come to the fellowship from outside, seeking to gain infiltration and acceptance to eventually spread their wrong teaching as a matter of course (we shouldn’t think that this was their intention - that is, to deliberately infiltrate to destroy - but that they come and naturally express those things which they’re experiencing in vocabulary which the believers may accept as true or have a hard time refuting).
The NIV’s translation needs to be carefully noted and amended at this point for it also implies that the people being referred to were believers who had never truly been united with Christ. It translates Paul’s words as observing that the men and women had
‘...lost connection with the Head’
which is not just a poor translation but a wrong one. The Greek text plainly speaks in the negative rather than, as here, in the positive. That is, Paul actually observes that they were not holding fast to the Head rather than they had lost their grip on Him - the apostle’s statement is ambiguous in the original but the NIV’s translation can only be taken as referring to people who once owned - or who continued to own - the name of Christ but who had wandered away into wrong experiences.
Again, we must consider Col 2:5 in our considerations here for Paul states unambiguously that the fellowship was healthy and in good order - hardly words which would be expected if he perceived an internal problem that needed sorting out.
The idea of Jesus being the ‘Head’ has already been mentioned by Paul in Col 1:18 (Pp Eph 1:22-23) and we saw then that there was the possibility that the word could be used as meaning either ‘authority’ or ‘source’ in the context in which it occurred.
I also noted at that time (under the heading ‘Growth in the Body’) the statements of Colbruce who concluded his discussion
‘...by noting that it’s the organic and functional relationship between the physical head and body that’s being used not only here but in those areas where this relationship is also mentioned in the NT and that we should think
‘“...of [the Church] as vitalised by His abiding presence with it and His risen life in it; one thinks of it as energised by His power; one may even...think of it as the instrument through which He carries on His work on earth”’
It’s this ‘functional relationship’ which is clearly being indicated here, of course, but the thought of provision is also present in that growth is clearly stated as coming from union with the Head.
Col 2:19 also parallels Eph 4:15-16 so closely as to warrant the claim that the apostle is talking about the very same subject. After all, if the reader takes a look at the Greek words that are employed here, it can be seen that it isn’t just the concepts which are similar in the English translations but the words which are employed are identical in a great many of the places.
Paul doesn’t have in mind the false teachers at this point in his letter to Ephesus and isn’t giving his readers a warning about what dangers might come upon them. He does, however, warn them that the fivefold ministry gifts of men to His Church are given so that (Eph 4:14)
‘...we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles’
and contrasts this with the alternative that they’re to speak the truth in love and are
‘...to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love’
Eph 4:15-16 goes one step beyond the teaching of Col 2:19, however, for Paul’s concerned to show the interrelation of the gifts of men to the necessary target of causing the Church of Christ to begin to build itself up and so to function as it was intended to be, no longer reliant upon the ministry gifts but providing for its own welfare and edification and, consequently, being a source of provision for other fellowships which need to function independently of man but dependent upon God.
Paul’s words in Col 2:19 are to show the readers that the false teachers will never be able to speak the truth because the source of their interpretations and assessments is wrong. Through their adherence to natural and earthly considerations they show that they are unable to receive the wisdom which comes from Jesus Christ and so, even though they may have an appearance of ‘growing’ into God or godliness, there’s no possibility that what’s being achieved will be acceptable to Him.
We might stop here for a moment and consider just how our own fellowships are structured when compared with the details which Paul gives us here. Clearly, no leadership is mentioned as being the ‘source’ of the provision of the body except Jesus Christ Himself, a timely reminder that reliance upon men and women to ‘feed the flock’ is demonstrably against the NT idea when they’re the be-all-and-end-all. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be leaders through whom provision comes but that there’s always a danger that the leader is relied upon for food and provision, for teaching and insight when it’s plainly stated here that the source of all good things is from Christ Himself.
Denominational organisations also can exert too great a control over individual fellowships and ‘move in’ leaders when others move on, not allowing congregations to look to Jesus Christ for provision and guidance - indeed, the congregations themselves can often cry out for leadership to the external hierarchy and forget totally that God may have His own man for them who isn’t part of their own man-made organisation.
The picture of the congregation here is of Jesus and the body - not of anyone who stands in the way between the two. In Eph 4:15-16 the idea is of temporary gifts of men who point to Jesus and who undermine the fellowship’s dependency upon themselves by their ministry to cause the body to edify itself - a good apostle, then, will be one who becomes redundant! He won’t be one who allows himself to get more and more relied upon!
Each individual member can only function properly when that person is dependent upon Jesus Christ - if it begins to function independently, then it soon loses union with the Head and will die spiritually. This has often been the reasoning behind calling believers into local fellowships to grow together and relate to one another but it must be realised that, although the interrelation of individual members to one another is vitally important, it’s the union with the Head which orders them correctly.
In other words, there will be a call upon individuals which will draw them away from groups who think they’re being deserted and that the individual stands in danger. Whether or not this might be the case depends largely upon whether the individual is in union with Christ not their own fellowship and there have been many (I mention Jackie Pullinger as one) who maintained their dynamic union with and reliance upon Jesus Christ and yet who had to turn their backs on their home churches in order to do the work God had for them (or else, even now, she would still be sitting in that pew in the UK as a good and valued member of the local church).
Indeed, a man or woman might retain their attendance within a fellowship and yet be severed from the Head - it seems strange that we cannot accept the point the other way round as well.
One of the side issues which Paul addresses here, of course, is whether any other relationship with God which isn’t on the basis of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross can be acceptable to God and achieve the desired end of justification and salvation.
There are many who have taken upon themselves the name of Christ and who continue to maintain that what they’ve done is simply one way to God and that other world religions are equally appropriate ways to seek and search after the Deity.
But Paul shows up the fallacy here of thinking that ‘All roads lead to God’ or of holding to the statement that ‘We’re all children of God’ for, unless Christ is all, there’s no growth from God. Let’s be clear on this matter before moving on for, as the apostle has already pointed out, there’s nothing which is worth anything apart from Jesus Christ and there’s no provision unless from Him.
Neither can any ‘way to God’ be thought of as a beneficial route upon which the adherent will one day achieve his desired end, for salvation is in Christ only, is instantaneous and freely distributed to all who follow after Him. There can be no other way which will hit the target because it’s centred in man’s self-effort and not upon the free gift of God. As Colwright observes
‘The true test of whether or not one belongs to God’s people is neither the observance of dietary laws and Jewish festivals, nor the cultivation of super-spiritual experiences, but whether one belongs to Christ, alive with Him’
and the condemnation which is sought to be placed upon the believers at Colossae is actually what God has placed upon those who are not holding on to Jesus Christ for the source of all provision and sustenance.
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