This article is part of the Distinctive Theology series.
Confronting a False Teaching
The theology of Colossians is distinct because it arises from Paul’s response to a false teaching that was threatening the church in Colossae. It is difficult to know the exact nature of this false teaching, but the most important evidence comes in the polemical section of Colossians 2:16–23. Here Paul warns the Colossians, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Col. 2:16). And he further warns, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind and not holding fast to the Head [i.e., to Christ] . . . ” (Col. 2:18–19). Putting these two warnings together, perhaps the false teaching taught that the true Christians should follow the food and calendar requirements of the Mosaic law as ascetic disciplines that would open up the door to spiritual visions of angels. People in the ancient world would sometimes call on angels for help with the daily struggles of life.
Does that sound worlds away to you? In one sense it is, since modern people do not tend to think about angels in their day-to-day life. Modern people, however, do still face the struggles of daily life and often look for spiritual experiences to help them cope. We live in a pluralistic society with many different views and religions, not unlike the Colossians. And we may sometimes wonder if we need something more than, or in addition to, what we currently have in Christ. Paul writes this letter to teach Christians that we need not and should not look for anything more, for Christ is preeminent over everyone and everything and sufficient for everything in our lives. The main point of the letter is summarized well in Colossians 2:6: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him . . . ”
A Focus on Christ
Paul’s response to the false teaching has led to a noticeable focus on Christ in this letter. It may sound odd to hear that the theology of Colossians is distinct because of its focus on Jesus Christ. Doesn’t the whole New Testament focus on Jesus Christ (not to mention the whole Bible)? Yes, but most interpreters still recognize something distinctive and transcendent about the Christology of Colossians.
Paul’s distinct teaching about Christ first bubbles up in the letter’s opening. After thanking God for their faith in Christ and praying that they would know more of God’s wisdom in his Son, Paul gives a carefully composed poem about the Son in Colossians 1:15–20. It is often in the poetry of the New Testament where we see the most transcendent statements about Christ. For example, “he is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15); “by him all things were created” (Col. 1:16); “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17); “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19). Thus, we need not look anywhere else for divine help or wisdom in life, for in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
A Focus on Heaven
One distinct aspect of the Christology in Colossians is its heavenly or upward focus. This again is because of Paul’s response to the false teaching, which focused on angelic visions. Paul says that the hope of the gospel is a “hope laid up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:7). As we keep reading we see that Christ himself is the hope of the gospel (Col. 1:17) and that he is the one who is in heaven: “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1).
The preeminent Christ is also sufficient for the Christian’s daily life.
This verse alludes to David’s words in Psalm 110:1: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” This psalm is appealed to many times in the New Testament, including the famous teaching of Jesus during his final week in Jerusalem (see Matt. 22:41–46). It is often alluded to with reference to Jesus’s ascension into heaven after his resurrection. Distinct to Paul’s teaching in Colossians is the idea that those who have been united with Christ by faith participate not only in Jesus’s death and resurrection but in his ascension to heaven: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:2–3). Christ dwells in us on earth (Col. 1:27), and we are also hidden with him in heaven (Col. 3:3).
The Ascended Christ and Daily Life
Paul’s teaching about the believer’s place with Christ in heaven is not esoteric or escapist but rather is the basis of the Christian’s daily life. Much of the letter to the Colossians is made up of practical instructions that are rooted in the heavenly Christology of the letter. As we have already seen, Paul calls believers to “seek the things that are above” (Col. 3:1) and to “set your minds on things that are above” (Col. 3:2). That is, our daily thoughts and aspirations should be oriented upward toward Christ who is in heaven. Conversely, Paul calls believers to “put to death . . . what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5)—the common vices of sexual immorality and angry speech. Those who are in Christ are now called to put on Christ and do everything in his name. Thus, the preeminent Christ is also sufficient for the Christian’s daily life.
In conclusion, we can be grateful that Paul was forced to counter this false teaching in Colossae, for it gave him an opportunity to clarify the preeminence of and sufficiency of the ascended Christ for the believer. This Christ dwells in us below, and we are hidden with him above. This should give the believer hope for the future in the midst of the struggles of daily life, for “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4).
Kevin W. McFadden is the author of Hidden with Christ in God: A Theology of Colossians and Philemon.
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