Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg

with Tom Fuller

The Colossian Heresy Part 1

Colossians 2:8-15

So what was up in Colossae? What got Paul so hot under the collar and worried that the people in the church were going off the rails in terms of their beliefs and doctrines?

Scholars and church fathers have argued about this since shortly after the 1st century. Clement of Alexandria thought it involved the insertion of Epicurean (hedonist) philosophy in Colossae. Others think it was a mixture of eastern and western philosophy. Others felt it might have been a mixture of pagan practices with legal observances.

But by looking through what the text reveals to us, we can gain some understanding?and I think some warnings?because the type of thing that went on Colossae is alive and well in the church today?and just as deadly to Christians.

  • The bad doctrine came from within the church
  • It wasn?t being introduced as another gospel, but as a way to ?complete? the Christian experience.
  • More impressive members of the body unduly influenced others to follow their practices (Jewish Christians in a mostly Gentile church)
  • Paul is not against the discipline of philosophy, but against the philosophy that certain members were bringing up.
  • It was primarily a Jewish doctrine (only the Jews had angels, not the pagans).
  • Christ?s salvation just wasn?t enough to make you a full-on Christian.
  • To do that you need to set your sites lower than God and reach up to Him through the mediation of angelic beings.
  • Believers who tried to reach God directly through the mediation of Jesus were presumptuous and needed to be self-abased.
  • This self-abasement would allow them to become gradually complete as they accessed these angelic beings.
  • The neglect of the body would enhance their spirituality on their journey to completeness.
  • It denied that the fullness of God dwelt bodily in Christ (2:9)
  • Denied that the Christian was ?complete? in Christ (10)
  • Tried to supplement our freedom in Christ by introducing ways to enhance our spirituality
  • Jewish legalism?which worships the self over God
  • Spiritism?which worships other gods over Jesus

The basic heresy was this:

In doing so:

Let?s walk through the particulars:


?Be careful? is from the Greek word for your eye. ?Keep an eye out? might be a way we would say it, or ?pay attention?. We need to be observant and cautious about what doctrine we take in because if we are not careful, we will find ourselves being led astray.

Back in verse 4 Paul talked about being deceived by persuasive arguments in support of false doctrine. If you aren?t watchful, those arguments will end up keeping you from thinking any other way. I see this happening all too often in the body of Christ. The ?flavor of the month? doctrine comes out?its adherents use language designed to deceive and to attract Christians who aren?t being careful. Eventually people taken captive by this cannot see any other way of thinking?and if you try to reason with them you are seen as either less-than, or an enemy. Whenever a church says their particular doctrine is the way?look out; it?s a way to slavery of the mind.

By the way: ?taking captive? here is in the present active tense. False teachers must continually reinforce their bad doctrine with more falsity to keep the Holy Spirit from whispering: ?this is garbage!? Further evidence that this was a Jewish-led effort is that the rare Greek word for ?captive? which almost rhymes with the word synagogue.

Paul here is not discouraging the discipline of philosophy?which is to think hard and try to ferret out the truth. In fact, there is a definite article here before the word ?philosophy? so that the sentence should read: ?takes you captive through THE philosophy.? Paul is addressing a particular set of conclusions about the truth. Another reason we think this is a Jewish-based false doctrine is in part because Jewish writers would refer to Judaism as a philosophy (e.g.: Philo).

The way the false teachers got their hooks into the minds of the Colossians was through ?empty deceit?. The ideas they brought out were constructed to secretly persuade?but they have no real merit and are ?empty.?

Paul states two categories of this deceit: ?human tradition? and ?elemental forces of the world.? It?s a human tradition because men made it up?it didn?t come from God. The Jews were guilty of this. Jesus said in Mark 7:7 ?They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men.?

?Elemental forces? is a reference to the belief that there were levels of spiritual authority?gods or angels?that needed to be addressed or even worshiped. We?ll see more about this in verse 18.

So the false doctrine was one part made-up Jewish tradition and one part spiritism. Neither of these is based on the truth of who Jesus is.

9 ? 10 Spiritsm

With Paul making this statement that all the fullness of God?s nature dwelling in the physical body of Jesus?he is giving us a clue about the nature of the heresy. Somehow these Jewish Christians denied that Jesus was fully God. This makes sense since one of the goals of the heresy was to get people not to trust Jesus but to trust other spiritual beings. Verse 19 of Chapter 1, part of an early Christian poem or song, also makes the claim that Jesus is, in fact, fully man and fully God. Here, Paul expands on it. If Jesus is fully God, and God rules over all other spirit beings and all earthly beings, and Jesus is in you, then you?ve tapped into the top. There is no need, therefore, to worship anything or access anything or trust anything to get what you need other than Jesus. To do otherwise is to worship an idol.

In our world many things compete to have first place in your mind. An example: we want to feel secure. We face a situation where security is threatened. We reach out to God but He seems only interested in fulfilling needs (not wants) and that according to His purpose. We think we are feeling insecure and it is into that feeling that false doctrine like this comes in. The lure of (false) security gets us to stop trusting God, and so we amass money so we can feel secure. In the end we end up worshipping it, instead of God. It has first place in our minds.

11 ? 12 Jewish Legalism

The inclusion of circumcision also tells us that this was a Jewish-based heresy. Circumcision was given to the Hebrews, specifically to Abram, as a sign of the covenant they had with Yahweh:

Gen. 17:10 ?This is My covenant, which you are to keep, between Me and you and your offspring after you: Every one of your males must be circumcised. 11 You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskin to serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and you.?

Paul makes a distinction between this physical circumcision of the Hebrews and the ?circumcision not done with hands?, a ?circumcision of the Messiah.? In Romans 2:29, Paul tells us that this new circumcision is one of the heart. Paul describes it as ?putting off the body of flesh.? Paul makes the analogy to baptism?being buried in baptism is certainly symbolic of circumcision (Romans 6:3-8).

Though this section is very difficult to translate and understand?it seems that one excellent way to look at the passage is to understand that the word ?body? in verse 11 can also mean a group of people. And ?flesh? can also mean family solidarity. So in essence, as we turn to Jesus and His death on the cross for our sins, we transfer our allegiance away from the old family of the first Adam?and the old covenant including circumcision of the flesh and the Law of Moses that came to remind us how much we lack of God?s character?to the new family of the Second Adam: Jesus.

Baptism then is a stand-in for circumcision?and as we go into the water, it symbolizes identifying with Christ?s death. As we come out of the water it symbolizes the new life we obtain through Jesus? resurrection from the dead.

The heresy suggested that becoming a Christian?and declaring it through baptism?wasn?t enough to make you complete or mature. As Paul goes on, he emphatically refutes that.

13 ? 14

Prior to having faith in Jesus?the Colossians were dead in the things they had done that were contrary to the character of God. Before Christ we were all dead in that we were separated from God and running on battery power?power that would eventually run out. We, like the Colossians, were ?uncircumcised? in that we had not repented and turned from sin to Jesus, asking forgiveness by His sacrifice and placing ourselves under His control.

But in putting faith, trust and reliance on Him?He made us alive, forgave us and erased this debt that we owed God?because ultimately all sin is sin against God. Psalm 51:4 ?Against you, and you alone, have I sinned?. Romans 6:23 says: ?the wages of sin is death.?

God has a list of everything we?ve done said or thought that does not reflect His character. It?s a ledger of debits and credits. In that ledger, sins are debits, and righteousness is a credit. The problem is: ?there is no one who does good, no, not one? (Psalm 14:3)?so we have no credits, only debits.

On the cross, Jesus paid the cost for every one of our debits so He can tear up the ?certificate of debt? and the ?obligations? which is death: eternal separation from God and eternally suffering God?s wrath against evil.

Paul uses the analogy that Jesus literally nailed that certificate on the cross and it got ripped to shreds?completely erased.

It?s been done, and there?s nothing more to be done to make us righteous before God. The Colossians needed to understand that because there were those in their midst making them feel that there was more to be done.

And today there are whole denominations that are based on human righteous behavior earning favor with God. If I do the right thing God likes me if I don?t follow the rules God doesn?t like me.

We?ve got the thing turned all around. Your life through the resurrection of Jesus doesn?t depend on your goodness, nor is it blunted by your evil.

So Paul finishes this part of the argument by saying the Colossians owe no allegiance any more to human or spiritual authorities that guide them into coming into God?s favor by creating allegiances with them.


This verse also is a bit difficult to translate and understand. But I think a good way to think about it is that the old ways?secular religions such as the emperor worship of Rome, and even Judaism?s worship of the Law?conspired to strip Jesus naked, and put Him to death. But in the height of irony?it was actually Jesus who triumphed over all governments and religions?and over all ?pretend? gods?and He has stripped them of their power over humans.

The images in this verse come from the practice of Roman generals who would parade through towns after winning a battle?displaying the booty obtained and the prisoners captured in the battle?as defeated foes. You are the booty God rescued and has publically humiliated those things that stood between you and God.

This becomes vitally important in the next section, where Paul attacks another form of the heresy?that following the Jewish food laws and various taboos was a way to draw closer to God and away from the old nature.


The two basic philosophies can be summed up this way:

These two ideas are actually rampant in the church today. Next time I hope to bring in some examples to help us understand how the Colossian heresy is alive and well?pulling Christians into its orbit to this day.