As I mentioned last time, the little church in Colosse was being threatened by false teaching. In time, I hope to show you that understanding as much as we can about the false teaching — and, particularly, observing how Paul responded to it — is extremely helpful and instructive to us in our current situation.
I also mentioned that it is common to identify the opposition in Colosse as (A) a group of (B) Gnostic false teachers. I have seen studies debating just how Gnostic they were (and more studies and sermons simply and flatly asserting that they were Gnostics), but I've never seen the number of false teachers debated, nor even discussed.
For instance, the recent, excellent NT introduction by D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo (Zondervan: 20052) discusses whether the false teaching can be called Gnostic in any sense, what its elements seem to be, and even whether there was any specific identifiable heresy in Colosse (526-529). But in describing the opposition, they simply write, "The apostle had heard that some false teachers had come to Colosse, so he wrote to refute their errors..." (523, emphases added).
Similarly, in N. T. Wright's earlier TNTC commentary on Colossians (IVP: 1986) he spoke only of "false teachers," plural. Even on 2:18, where Paul uses the singular, Wright wrote that "Paul describes these people as ‘entering into—their own visions!’ All they have discovered in their vaunted mystical experiences is a set of imaginary fantasies" (128).
In spite of this unargued consensus, I noticed something consistently in the text of Colossians sent my thinking in a fresh direction. As I said, given that far better men that I evidently have seen no such thing, I may well be wrong. However, given that greater understanding and greater attention to details is always helpful, I think it's at least worth a thought.
Let's start by isolating every verse that directly mentions the opposition in Colosse. Here you go (all are my ad hoc translations, bolding added):
- 2:4 — "I say this that no one should delude you with persuasive arguments."
- 2:8 — "Keep looking out lest there shall be someone who takes you hostage through empty, deceptive philosophy, in accord with the tradition of men, in accord with the rudiments of the world, and not in accord with Christ:"
- 2:16 — "Therefore, stop letting someone judge you in eating and in drinking, and in respect to a festival or new moon or sabbath day,...."
- 2:18-19a — "Stop letting anyone rule you out, delighting in humiliation and worship of the angels, going into detail about things he has experienced, being inflated without cause by the mind of his flesh, and not holding fast to the Head...."
- "Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. ... 12 And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:5, 12-15)
- "...there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ." (Galatians 1:7)
- "They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them." (Galatians 4:17)
- "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!" (Galatians 5:12)
- "For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh." (Galatians 6:13)
- "Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh." (Philippians 3:2)
- "As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. ...6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions" (1 Timothy 1:3-4, 6-7)
- "For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach" (Titus 1:10-11)
Now, this isn't an exhaustive study of every mention of false teachers in every other letter. But I do note that even when Paul uses a singular (i.e. 2 Corinthians 11:4), he'll shift right back into plural (11:5, 12ff.).
So I surmise that there was one charismatic and potentially influential false teacher in Colosse, who was threatening to exert a dangerous influence among believers. I don't think we should speak of the false teachers in Colosse, but the false teacher. At any rate, that's all we have direct authority to identify.
Some might quite appositely point to Colossians 2:8 and 22, where Paul mentions the traditions, commandments and teachings "of men." But 2:8 says to beware of someone, some individual, who teaches these things. Besides, in every other occurrence of τῶν ἀνθρώπων ("of men"), Paul is speaking of mankind, not of specific men (Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 1:25; 13:1; Ephesians 3:5; 4:14). Indeed, the ESV translates both occurrences in Colossians as "human."
If I'm reading it right, then, while the other epistles help us see how Paul responded to movements and teachings, Colossians will specifically show how the apostle goes up against one big name, one heretical proto-televangelist, who perhaps could fill the auditoriums of his day and rivet crowds with his personal teachings and experiences and revelations.
What will Paul do? Find dirt on the man's private life? Focus on the way he dresses or lives, or how much money he gets or spends, or what rumors are told of him? How will the apostle respond to this one charismatic false teacher who is threatening to unravel this young church?
First, Lord willing, let us identify what we can of the man's doctrines. (Was he a Gnostic, like everyone says? What did he teach?) Next time. Then we can see how Paul responded.