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A sermon on the heresy at Colossae

heresy in Colossians
Colossae is modern day Turkey

A Sermon on Colossians 2:16-23.

I’m here to tell you that I agree with Paul wholeheartedly: God’s unifying purpose for all mankind can be found in the Gospel. The church teaching that the work of Christ, in his death and resurrection, was for our salvation. This means that if we have Christ in our life then we have spiritual fulfilment; there is no need to supplement nor supplant that idea with anything more. This is the apostle’s main message in Colossian 2:16-23.

Nowadays we place a great emphasis on diversity in all walks of life:  the benefits of which are taught to our children in schools, upheld by ‘diversity champions’ in youth and community organizations, and found in public institutions and private workplaces where we have a role of Diversity Officer to ensure diversity is maintained. There is no doubt we live in a multicultural and pluralist society.

We tend to forget that the Epistles and writings of the NT originate from a similar cultural backdrop: a diverse, complex, and equally rich society existed back then as much as it does today. For all the good that diversity brings, it also brings with it challenges. Until maybe 10 years ago, it was more common to think of our strength being found in unity. The strength of the Church is found in unity, and this was often the subject of the Pauline epistles. That is to say, if there had been an early Church HR department, the Apostle Paul would’ve been employed as the Unity Officer.

The churches of Asia Minor, that the letter to the Colossians is addressed to, is a relatively young church at the time of writing; established by Epaphras, the church seemed to get off to a good start: Paul writes in chapter 1 how he is grateful for the people of Colossae and how they embraced the gospel of Christ: ‘it is bearing fruit and growing all over the world, just as it has among you since the day you first heard it’. However, it appears though that without Paul’s immediate involvement a certain diversity of practice was gaining a bit traction within the congregations. There are certain teachings that are leading people astray.

It's possible that the teachings relate to the subject of the Mosaic law and it’s status in Christian Worship, which Paul address more explicitly in other letters. The Jewish backdrop to the unnamed heresy is hinted at in verse 16: ‘therefore, do not let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day’. The very deliberate word order is a reproduction of the Jewish prophets Ezekiel 45:17 and Hosea 2:11. Certainly the social customs outlined related to Judaism in some way. Paul tells the people in Verse 17 that they don’t need to put so much emphasis on these things as they are ‘merely a shadow of things to come and that the real substance, that is true teachings, belong to Christ.’  It’s interesting that the author of Hebrews, who was probably not Paul, has a similar unifying teaching about Christ. They write in Heb 10:1: ‘since the law is only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of those realities, it can never perfect the worshipper’. We see then from these examples that the early Church is quite clear that it is Christ who is the real substance and foundation to our belief; it is Jesus who perfects our worship. So, we could finish there, and say Paul is once more merely addressing the deficiency of the Law, in light of the supremacy of the Gospel.

 But there is something more going on in Colossae. Verse 18: ‘don’t let anyone who delights or insists on false humility and the worship of angels, disqualify you from the prize. The prize in this context is our salvation in Christ. The spiritual life of the church in Colossae had begun to move away from the Apostle’s teaching of the sufficiency of Christ’s work. The congregations were adding something to it, something of an additional spiritual dimension.

That point there provides us a neat little segue to bring us into our modern world, and chance to note the thirst for spiritual fulfilment remains as vibrant today as it was back then. So how Paul deals with it in the first century, has implications for us today. Spirituality remains very much part of our postmodern, post-Christian society. So how Paul deals with it in the first century, has implications for us today.

For example, I live in a sleepy seaside town, and on our high street we have a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker (a candle maker anyways), a couple of off-licenses and a shop for witches! Angel merch is easy to come by: books about guardian spirits, tarot decks with angels, crystals, statues, and all sorts of spiritual paraphernalia, can be bought alongside your bread and milk; as Christians we tend to view this sort of thing neutrally or even as completely benign, but Paul from the early Church HR department would probably want us to come by his office for a sit down. He did see a danger in it.

Most likely, the heresy of the Colossian Church arose from a Jewish sect called the Elchasaites. They had membership within this young church; and this is where it gets complicated: they were messianic Jews, in a sense that they recognised Jesus as Lord, but they added to the work of Christ, the need to incorporated angel worship, Jewish mysticism, strange purification rituals and perhaps some extreme form of ascetism into church life. Paul warns that these things are not spiritual in nature, that they in fact come from the ‘unspiritual mind’. How ironic that the elchasaite’s pursuit to quench their spiritual thirst ultimately rendered them unspiritual in the eyes of God. Paul says that all these additions may have had an appearance of wisdom, an appearance of humility and an appearance of worship even, but what these practices were failing to do was to actually bring the people closer to a relationship with God. They were not products of the spirit – but products of the mind of flesh. What the Elchasaites practiced Paul labels in verse 22, ethelothreskeia – a self-made religion. A man-made spirituality.

And that is the danger we find in the postmodern approach to spirituality. We always seek to add something to it. To assemble something else, to construct something that is better. As spirituality broadens and deepens people are continually adding to it: can we be more virtuous? Can we be more saved? Are we even interested in being saved anymore?

Even within Christianity, boundaries with other faiths begin to blur. A little bit of angel worship here, a sprinkling of wiccan Eco spirituality there, Jesus as a Buddha, teaching enlightenment as opposed to restoration in a coming kingdom.  Eastern philosophies are highly influential for the modern-day spiritual seeker, I understand the appeal, the emphasis on peace and acts of kindness but they don’t teach redemption, and they don’t draw us to God.

The question arises, why is it like this?

Society today emphasises the individual, the individual’s story, the individual’s truth, and the individual’s autonomy. These things in and of themselves are not necessarily a bad thing, but they carry the implication of also emphasising the individual’s authority. The Church of Christ is a contrast, our authority comes from outside ourselves, it is corporate in nature, our spirituality is shared through the gospel. Salvation is available to anyone who listens.

Paul tells us how to do it: the solution is (verse 19) not to lose connection with the Head, and by implication follow His instructions.

Who is the head, what are his instructions? The answer is in Ephesian 4:15: Speaking the truth in love, we grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is Christ’

For believers in Christ, our identity is first to be found in Christ; part of that identity is the recognition of the authority of God in our lives. If we fail to recognise that presence in our lives, we could also perhaps fail to recognise the things that he done for us, the things he gave to us, by grace, through His son. It is through recognising all these things that we can enter a true relationship with him. We approach Him in the correct manner through proper worship. A worship not of our own construction, self-made, but by following Jesus as the way.

God’s unifying purpose for all mankind can be found in the Gospel. Which is why Paul warns in chapter 2 verse 8 ‘see to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy’.

Aligning with anything other than Christ, endangers our spiritual welfare; it endangers our own redemption, as we fail to grow in God. Paul even warns of succumbing once more to the elemental principles of the world. Those are the things of this mortal world, the distractions, the things of the flesh that keep us at distance from God. Paul warns us not to divide our loyalties between the flesh and the spirit.

Finally, to sum up, in this particular passage, we are instructed not split our loyalties regarding matters of the spiritual. We must be careful in our own practice we must be mindful of our own congregations. The pull of the modern world has lots of avenues to explore, but all we need is the teaching of the gospel: There is one God, in three persons, who sustains us and promises a fuller life in him. Paul exhorts that there is no other beside him when it comes to matters of salvation- Christ does not need to be supplemented nor should he be supplanted. I invite you to listen to the Gospel.



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