In the book of Colossians Christ is unveiled to a fuller extent than in any other book in the Bible. In this short book many terms and expressions are used to describe Christ. Before we consider the revelation of Christ in Colossians, we need to pay attention to the background and position of this book, both of which are crucial.
Three verses, all of which are warnings, enable us to see the situation which caused this Epistle to be written— Colossians 2:8, 16, and 18. Colossians 2:8 says, “Beware that no one carries you off as spoil through his philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the elements of the world, and not according to Christ.” This verse mentions four negative things which can cause us to be carried off as captives: philosophy, empty deceit, tradition, and the elements of the world. In the eyes of fallen mankind, philosophy is very good; it is the most highly developed product of culture. The elements of the world, elementary principles of certain teachings, may also be highly regarded by society. Nevertheless, philosophy, deceit, tradition, and the elements of the world can cause us to be carried off as prey.
In 2:16 Paul says, “Let no one therefore judge you in eating and in drinking or in respect of a feast or of a new moon or of Sabbaths.” Here Paul lists a number of things that are positive: eating, drinking, feasts, new moons, and Sabbaths. He warned the Colossians not to let anyone judge them with respect to these things.
In verse 18 Paul goes on to say, “Let no one purposely defraud you of your prize, in humility and worship of the angels, standing on things which he has seen, vainly puffed up by the mind of his flesh.” The prize spoken of in this verse is Christ as our enjoyment. It is possible to be defrauded of this prize through humility, a very positive human virtue.
The reason Paul gave these warnings was that the church in Colosse had been saturated with asceticism. This asceticism was related to legality of ordinances (2:20-21) and to Judaistic observances (2:16).
Furthermore, mysticism had invaded the church. This mysticism was related to Gnosticism, which was composed of Egyptian, Babylonian, Jewish, and Greek philosophies (2:8) and to the worship of angels (2:18).
The vital point concerning the background of the book of Colossians is that culture had been brought into the church life. The population of Colosse was a mixture of Gentiles and Jews. The Gentiles and the Jews had different cultures. For the most part, the Gentiles were under the influence of Greek culture with its philosophy. At that time, however, Greek philosophy was no longer pure. Rather it was a mingling of various philosophies. Furthermore, the Gentile culture was at least somewhat blended with Jewish religious concepts.
This mixture of cultures flooded the church at Colosse. The church should be a house filled with Christ and constituted with Him. Instead, the church there had been invaded by culture. To a large extent, Christ as the unique element in the church life was being replaced by various aspects of this mixed culture. The constituent of the church should be Christ and Christ alone, for the church is the Body of Christ. Therefore, the content of the church should be nothing other than Christ Himself. Nevertheless, the good elements of culture, especially philosophy and religion, had invaded the church and saturated it.
In particular, a type of religious asceticism had made inroads into the church life. Verses 20 and 21, which speak of ordinances regarding handling, tasting, and touching, refer to this. We know that this asceticism was religious in nature because it was related to the worship of angels (2:18). Hence, the asceticism that flooded the church in Colosse was not crude, but refined and cultured.
To some, the worship of angels may seem quite good, far superior to the worship of reptiles, birds, and beasts. Nevertheless, angel worship is idolatry, although a somewhat refined type of idolatry. People of high culture do not worship animals, but they may be open to worship angels. Some justify such a practice by saying that they do not worship idols, but, in humility, worship the heavenly servants of God. Regarding themselves as too low to worship God directly, they may feel that they must worship Him through an intermediary. This concept has been assimilated into Catholicism, which teaches that we may need the help of an intermediary in order to contact God. In principle at least, Catholicism has adopted the practice of using an intermediary in the worship of God.
It is the subtlety of the enemy to flood the church with the elements of culture. This is what he was doing when the book of Colossians was written. His strategy was to send a mixture of Jewish religion and Gentile philosophy into the church and to saturate the church with this cultural mixture. From the human point of view, this culture, particularly its asceticism, was very good. Asceticism has a good purpose and goal; it attempts to enable people to deal with their lusts. However, we must see that Satan’s strategy in flooding the church with culture is to use the most highly developed aspects of culture to replace Christ.
Do not think that this phenomenon was limited to the first century. It is still with us today. In today’s Christianity Christ has been almost altogether replaced by other things, especially by good things. The name of Christ may be found in Christianity, but the reality of Christ may be absent. Many things have become substitutes for Christ. For example, even the teaching of the Bible is used by the enemy of God as such a substitute for Christ Himself. Many Christians study the Bible without contacting Christ. Due to Satan’s subtlety, any kind of Christian work can also replace Christ Himself. Christian work should minister Christ. However, some Christian works make their particular goal a substitute for Christ.
In today’s religion some pastors and ministers may allow their own personalities to replace Christ. Certain Christian workers have attractive, powerful personalities. They use their personalities to draw people not to Christ, but to themselves. This is the reason that many Christians compliment and even praise the personalities of certain pastors. Those who do not have such a strong personality may attract people by their niceness or their humility. Christians may choose to attend a particular so-called church because the minister there is kind and sympathetic.
We in the Lord’s recovery may substitute the good aspects of our character or behavior for Christ. If anyone who serves the Lord is sinful or proud, others will be frustrated from coming to the Lord. But the natural meekness or humility of such a serving one is even more damaging and frustrating than his sinfulness or pride. Everyone realizes that nothing sinful can be related to Christ. But not many can discern the difference between good character or behavior and Christ Himself. On the contrary, many identify excellent behavior with Christ. Hence, if we are short of revelation, our good character may become a substitute for Christ.
Because the church is composed of human beings, it is difficult for the church to be separated from society, which is a composition of culture. Yes, as the church, we are separated from the world; we are in the world, but not of the world. However, the church must remain in society. The believers should not live like monks or nuns. In order to have the church life, we must have a normal human living. The issue at hand is how a unit of people can be in society without being influenced by culture. How can we be saved from the influence of our cultural background? As believers in the Lord, we do love one another. Nevertheless, we may have a special love for those with a background similar to ours. Through such an influence operating in the church life, Christ is replaced by culture.
When Paul wrote the Epistle to the Colossians, a number of isms were exerting their influence: Judaism, asceticism, mysticism, Gnosticism. These isms were among the highest products of both Jewish and Gentile cultures. Being good things, they spontaneously became replacements for Christ. Therefore, Paul’s purpose in the book of Colossians is to show that in the church nothing should be allowed to be a substitute for Christ. The church life must be constituted uniquely of Christ. He should be our only constituent and our very constitution. This is the reason that in this short Epistle a number of elevated expressions are used to describe Christ. For example, He is called the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, the firstborn from among the dead, and the body of all the shadows. In 3:10 and 11, Paul says that in the new man there is no possibility of having Greek or Jew, circumcision or uncircumcision, barbarian or Scythian, slave or freeman. Rather, in the new man Christ is all and in all. This means that Christ must be everyone and in everyone. In the new man there is no room for Chinese, Japanese, American, British, French, or Germans. Christ must be every one of us. In the new man Christ must be you and me. Not only must culture go, but even we have to go. It is crucial that we see this revelation.
We need to heed Paul’s warning to beware of anything that will carry us away from Christ. Sisters, beware of your kindness, gentleness, and sympathy. Beware of any human virtues that replace Christ. Brothers, beware of your sound mind, strong will, boldness, and any other virtues that are substitutes for Christ. What subtlety of the enemy to tempt us into trying to be nice, gentle, mild, or attractive! Nevertheless, many preachers and ministers teach and practice this very thing. It seems that such kind, humble, cultivated people attract others to the Lord. Actually, they succeed only in attracting people to themselves. No one drawn to them is truly gained by the Lord. I am concerned that even in the churches in the Lord’s recovery some may be attracted to the church life not by Christ, but by the character or behavior of certain brothers or sisters.
The main point in the Epistle of Colossians is the fact that in the eyes of God nothing counts except Christ. This fact excludes both good things and bad things, both sinful things and cultured things. In particular, it eliminates all the good aspects of culture. We have pointed out again and again that the enemy of God utilizes culture to replace Christ. This is offensive to God. If Satan cannot corrupt us with evil things, God knows that he will try to use the good aspects of culture to replace Christ. Among today’s Christians, where can you find a group of believers with whom you can sense nothing but Christ? Among the various Christian groups we see many good points. However, these good things are not the Person of Christ Himself, but something that has replaced Him in a subtle way. For this reason, in many groups of Christians it is difficult to meet Christ. Some may preach Christ or teach the doctrines regarding Christ, but even this preaching and teaching becomes a substitute for Christ Himself. If we have a clear view of the situation among Christians today, we shall realize that the background of the book of Colossians exactly corresponds to today’s situation. This book was written for us, not only for the saints at Colosse.
If we have a clear understanding of the background of this Epistle, we shall realize that the only way for us to take is the way of the cross. The cross is both a narrow way and a highway. For those not willing to take the cross, the cross is a narrow way. But for those who are willing to take this way, the cross becomes a highway. In the church we all should be nothing and nobody. This was Paul’s attitude when he said that we have died and have been buried. To lay hold of this, we need revelation. Whatever we are, whatever we have, and whatever we do can become a substitute for Christ. The better we are or the more capable we are of doing things, the more Christ may be replaced in our experience. Through the cross, we need to become nothing, to have nothing, and to be able to do nothing. Otherwise, what we are, what we have, or what we can do will become a substitute for Christ. Then in our Christian life Christ will not be all in all. The book of Colossians teaches us that in the church life Christ must be all and in all. Everything that is not Christ must go.
Just as there is a heart in our physical body, so there is a heart in the Bible also. The heart of the Bible is not the book of Genesis or the book of Revelation, nor even the Gospels. It is a cluster of four books: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. These books were, of course, written according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, their sequence in the arrangement of the New Testament books is most significant. If you read the New Testament carefully, you will realize that these four books stand out. Before Galatians is the book of 2 Corinthians. There seems to be no connection between 2 Corinthians and Galatians. However, as we read through the New Testament, we sense that Galatians is the beginning of something new and that this book is connected to Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. In particular, Ephesians and Colossians are sister books. When we turn from Colossians to 1 Thessalonians, we also sense that there is no connection between these books. Hence, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians are a cluster of books that make up the very heart of the Bible.
The essential subject of these four books is Christ and the church. We have seen that the church is composed of human beings who live in society. As such an entity, it is difficult for the church to stay away from the influence of culture. For this reason, in these books concerning Christ and the church, two of them, Galatians and Colossians, show the damage caused by the law, Jewish religion, and other substitutes for Christ such as asceticism, mysticism, and Gnosticism.
According to Galatians, the Jewish religion, the typical religion, was formed according to God’s oracle. But this fundamental religion with its law became a replacement for Christ. Hence, in Galatians there is a strong emphasis upon the danger of the law replacing Christ. In Galatians 1 Paul testifies that he was once a leading religionist among the Jews. He was zealous for God and blameless according to the law. But one day it pleased God to reveal His Son, Christ, in Paul. As a result, Paul came to realize that Judaism is contrary to Christ and that Christ is versus religion with its law. Paul could then declare that he was dead to the law and had nothing to do with it. He had been crucified with Christ, and Christ now lived within him (2:20). Furthermore, in chapter six he said that he suffered persecution simply because he did not teach circumcision. Then he went on to say that the world, meaning specifically the religious world, was dead to him and that he was dead to the world. Between Paul and the Jewish religion there was the dividing line of the cross. As far as Paul was concerned, the entire religious world was on the cross. Moreover, to the Jews, Paul also was on the cross. As a man in Christ, he bore upon him the mark of Christ’s death. No longer was he in the Jewish religion, but was absolutely in Christ and for Christ. Hence, Galatians reveals that Christ is versus religion, the law, and circumcision.
We have pointed out that in Colossians Christ is revealed to the uttermost, much more than in Galatians. In Galatians Paul speaks of Christ being revealed in us, of Christ living in us, and of Christ being formed in us. But in Colossians he uses a number of special terms for Christ: the portion of the saints, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. In this short book, one aspect of Christ after another is unfolded. Therefore, Colossians reveals that Christ is profound and all-inclusive. The all-inclusive Christ transcends our understanding. Our need is to be infused, saturated, and permeated with Him until in our experience Christ is everything to us: our food, our drink, our feasts, our holy days, our Sabbath, our new moon, our everything. We must not allow anything to replace Christ or to be a substitute for Him. This is the central point of Colossians. Whereas Galatians reveals that Christ is versus religion and the law, Colossians reveals that Christ is versus everything because He Himself is the reality of every positive thing.
The book of Philippians emphasizes the matter of living Christ. In Philippians 1:21 Paul declares, “To me to live is Christ.” For Paul, to live was not human virtues such as meekness or humility; to live was Christ.
Ephesians deals specifically with the church. The issue, the result, of our living Christ is that the church is produced and built up in a practical way.
We all need to spend more time on the four books that compose the heart of the Bible. Viewing these books as a cluster, we see that we should care only for Christ, not for religion or culture. For us to live is not religion, philosophy, or any ism. In our living, Christ must be all and in all. The result of such a living is the church. Therefore, the heart of the Bible, as seen in this cluster of books, is Christ and the church.