09 March 2010

Colossians studies 6: Paul responds to the false teacher (1)

by Dan Phillips

[First and appropos of little, peer-pressure has done its work on me, and I have now yielded to the siren call of Twitter. Why? Because the cool kidz are doing it. And now you know that.]

Last time we outlined the false teaching that loomed as a threat to the young church in Colosse. Now we begin to study how the apostle responded.


First, I notice that Paul does not detail the false teaching. This is why there has been such debate and variations among students of the letter, through the centuries, as to the exact configuration of “the Colossian heresy.” We are left with allusions, mostly in chapter two; and with hints we glean from Paul’s emphases.

Rather than laying out the opposing view in detail, and then refuting it point by point, Paul mostly issues a positive corrective. He does not say, “Teacher X says 123, but that’s not true, because of 456. The real truth is 789.” Instead, Paul says in effect, “The truth is 789. You know this. Why ever would anyone settle for 123?”

It would be false to conclude from this that there is never any place for doing what Paul does not do here. For instance, in Galatians and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul does dedicate more space to presenting and refuting specific error. That is not the case, however, in Colossians.

Second, I notice that Paul doesn’t name this single false teacher who is threatening the flock. Sometimes, he does name the false teachers (1 Timothy 1:20), and sometimes he doesn’t (1 Corinthians 15:12; 2 Corinthians 12:11; Galatians 6:12). I don't know a simple formula that will explains the apostle’s choices in each case.

I can, however, observe that what the apostle actually does has the effect of focusing attention on the cure, rather than the disease (or its carrier). It is as if Paul is saying, “This man is nothing. What he is saying is of no consequence. That’s precisely what puzzles me: given that Christ is who He is, and that He has done what He has done – why would you pay any attention to such things, rather than stay as far away from them as you can?”

So what does Paul do, to counter the false teacher? I’ll lift out two related facets today, and then (DV) develop more next time.

FIRST: Paul supports the teaching of Epaphras (cf. 1:4-7, 23; 2:7 [DPUV]).
...having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and the love which you have for all the holy ones, 5on account of the hope which is laid away for you in the heavens, of which you heard before in the word of the truth, the good news, 6which has come to you, just as also in all the world it is bearing fruit of itself and growing just as also among you, from the day in which you heard it and came to know fully the grace of God in truth; 7just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow-slave, who is a faithful servant of Christ for your sake,
1:23 assuming that you remain on in the faith, abidingly founded and settled and not being shifted away from the hope of the good news which you heard, which was announced in all creation which is under Heaven, of which I, Paul, became a servant
2:7 abidingly rooted and being built up in Him, and being confirmed by the faith just as you were taught, abounding in it in thanksgiving.
Paul speaks of their faith (1:4a), love (1:4b), and hope (1:5) — and then says that they had learned these truths from Epaphras. That is Paul's seal of approval on Epaphras' teaching. In this way, the great apostle tells the Colossians, "What you already heard from Ephaphras is the real deal. It is the one saving, sanctifying, and preserving and true Gospel. There will not be another. You have no need for another. There will be no second editions, no upgrades, no supplements. What there is to know, you have already heard. Epaphras is the man."

Then 1:23 reaffirms that they are not to leave nor shift from this faith that Epaphras had taught them. What is more, it is the "catholic" faith — which is to say that it is the one Gospel that is preached everywhere, without alteration: full salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This teacher has nothing they need.

Then 2:7 again reaffirms that all the confirmation they need in Christ, they will get from the faith Epaphras had taught them. No new revelations are necessary.

So, they had already heard the right truth.

SECOND: Paul supported the character of Epaphras (cf. 1:7; 4:12, 13)
1:27 just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow-slave, who is a faithful servant of Christ for your sake,
4:12 Epaphras greets you, who is one of you, a slave of Christ Jesus, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, in order that you might stand mature and fully assured in every aspect of the will of God. 13For I bear him witness that he has much anguish for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for those in Hierapolis.
To say that Epaphras is "faithful" is to say that he is reliable, dependable, can be counted on — as opposed to this self-impressed upstart. Epaphras is committed (1) to Christ's service, and (2) to their spiritual wellbeing. Neither of these things is true of the false teacher.

Not only did they already have the right truth, but had already heard if from the right man.

This, then, is Paul's opening salvo. It speaks to us today. Epaphras was not an apostle, but he had grounded that church absolutely sufficiently, by laying the church's one foundation: the preaching of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-11). It was not necessary that he have special standing or special, supernatural, revelatory gifting. What was necessary was that he preach Christ — and he had done that.

This tells us who are pastors to preach Christ, and we can be assured that we stand within the apostolic tradition. This is the true apostolic succession: the preaching of the Gospel of Christ. If you are dedicated to Christ's service, and if you preach the Gospel, you could cherish the hope that Paul would also write a letter commending your ministry because and only if he could also commend your message.
SIDEBAR: don't miss the sad irony here. The sect which today most famously makes the biggest noise about "apostolic succession" — doesn't have it.
It tells all us sheep, as well, to stick with the Gospel. Hear it straight, then stick with it. Expect our adversary to send persuasive salesmen with "new and improved" versions to appeal to our restless discontent. Expect, and prepare to ignore.

As we shall continue to see, Colossians brings us a very contemporary, much-needed message: Christ is supreme and sufficient. Accept neither supplement nor substitute.

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12 comments:

donsands said...

"..focusing attention on the cure, rather than the disease"

Fixing our eyes on Jesus is needed far more than dealing with the wolves, though we must do that as well.

Thanks for another great lesson.

Johnny Dialectic said...

Preach Christ. Yes. The real PC.

Epaphras. Awesome. We kind of glide by him in this letter, but you've put a nice focus on him here. I like that he wrestled in prayer for his people.

DJP said...

Yep, he was definitely a sound brother.

Isn't it cool, too, how Paul doesn't shove Epaphras aside and say, "Okay, listen up, people"?

Paul is thinking about the church's future and Epaphras' ministry there.

Paul is saying in effect, "Okay, I am an apostle and slave of Christ, writing with His full authority, and I wanted to say... what Epaphras already told you. Stick with it."

David said...

I bet that letter made Epaphras's day.

Kinda like if, say, John Piper or Al Mohler RT'd you.

DJP said...

Yeah. Heh heh heh....

(What's RT?)

olan strickland said...

As we shall continue to see, Colossians brings us a very contemporary, much-needed message: Christ is supreme and sufficient. Accept neither supplement nor substitute.

Amen! Even when Paul found it necessary to defend his apostleship against the false apostles (2 Corinthians 11) he didn't speak of special standing or special, supernatural, revelatory gifting but of his suffering for the sake of truth - this put him in direct line with the men of God who were before him.

It's amazing how people will flock to the false flaunters of fellowship with Christ who have never entered into the fellowship of His suffering.

David said...

Hah! This is revenge for you making up all your own opaque acronyms.

RT = ReTweet.

Like if one of those guys quotes you on Twitter and it goes to all their followers.

Solameanie said...

I refuse to tweet. It's too close to twit. Besides, tweeting is one of the most annoying sounds in creation. I prefer a good loud bray or blare. Or even a still, small voice.

Now that I've had my fun, allow me to give Dan some kudos on an interesting, very edifying series. This would make good book material.

Stefan said...

"Epaphras greets you, who is one of you, a slave of Christ Jesus, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, in order that you might stand mature and fully assured in every aspect of the will of God."

What a beautiful thing, when one of Christ's vice-shepherds is fulfilling his calling, not only preaching the Word, but labouring for the souls of his flock, that the Word might dwell in them richly.

SamWise said...

"This is the true apostolic succession: the preaching of the Gospel of Christ. If you are dedicated to Christ's service, and if you preach the Gospel, you could cherish the hope that Paul would also write a letter commending your ministry because and only if he could also commend your message."

"True apostolic succession" = "True Gospel" which ties in well with Galatians 1:6-8:

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!"

There is no "other" "heteros" gospel but the gospel of grace.
It not even "allos" similar!

This goes also with the awesome and timely Spurgeon selection for the week:

"Do men really believe that there is a gospel for each century? Or a religion for each fifty years? Will there be in heaven saints saved according to a score sorts of gospel?"

Well Done DJP!

The Doulos said...

"Christ is supreme and sufficient. Accept neither supplement nor substitute."

A sweet summary Dan. And just so you know, I liked that so much that I tweeted it today. With proper attribution of course.

Rachael Starke said...

It's really interesting that so many pastor/scholars and far lesser-brained folks like myself have been studying Colossians lately. Matt Chandler is preaching it, JT posted a wonderful sermon by Tullian Tchidvijian yesterday, and our womens Bible study is going through it too.

It's been so interesting to see how the Holy Spirit has so clearly emphasized the same central truth of Jesus' supremacy over and over, even as different teachers highlight different applications of that truth. Every time I hear a new sermon or read your posts, I'm both so encouraged that in my own study that central point was so clear, and also newly enlightened to something I hadn't seen before.

e.g. The Apostle Paul affirming the ministry of the Lesser Known Epaphras. How many faithful pastors of struggling little congregations, surrounded by giant megachurchys led by lightweight "superstars", have been tempted to shift their emphasis away from Jesus and onto whatever they think might help them keep the lights on?

Maybe this is a good reminder for those of us who are in those little flocks to really pray for and encourage our own Epaphrases (Epaphri?) so that they don't lose heart...