Colossians 1:1-2 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, 2 To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace and peace to you from God our Father.
This week, we begin a new series through Paul’s letter to the Colossians. But before we get into the text of the letter itself, we’re going to spend a couple of days laying down some important groundwork. Today, we look at what Paul’s letter was trying to achieve in the lives of those who first heard it read out in the Colossian church. Tomorrow, we’ll then look at how it might do something similar as we read it in our own day.
Now, you can Google the basic historical stuff about Colossae if you want – the fact that it was located in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey); it was the oldest and previously most important town in the province of Phrygia; and that it was destroyed by an earthquake in 61AD and was probably never rebuilt. But the most important background in understanding what the letter is trying to do relates to the opposing “philosophy” Paul is countering, which he mentions in chapter 2:
Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
This is one of the great discussions in New Testament studies: what was the Colossian “philosophy”?
Firstly, we need to explain what Paul means by the term “philosophy.” These days, we tend to see it as a theoretical discussion about the fundamental nature of the world and human existence. In ancient times it was broader than that, referring to a way of life that lived consistently with how you viewed the world. It was practical and ethical, as well as theoretical. Paul’s purpose in writing to the Colossians was to encourage them to live out a Christian philosophy (way of life) rather than being attracted back into the philosophies of the culture around:
Colossians 2:6-7 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
So far, so good. But if the Christian way of life is to live out the implications of “receiving Christ Jesus as Lord,” what is the alternative against which Paul warns in the next verse – the “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of the world”?
There are four main viewpoints, which I’ll summarise in a minute. But if you really want to understand the discussion, you’ll first need to read Paul’s description of the philosophy in 2:16-23, to see the pieces of the puzzle we’re trying to put together (key ideas in bold):
Colossians 2:16-23 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. 20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world (stoicheia), why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
As you’ve seen, there are some elements that sound a bit Jewish, others that sound like pagan religion, and still others that sound like the teachings of Greek philosophical schools. What’s more, the Greek word stoicheia, which the NIV translates as “elemental spiritual forces of the world,” could refer to the elements of Jewish teaching; the elements of the material world (earth, water, air, fire); or elemental spiritual beings (e.g. angels and demons).
So how do we put all the puzzle pieces together in a way that identifies the nature of this competing philosophy, and how it was attractive to the Christians in Colossae? Here are the main four that have been suggested*:
- Paul is talking about Jewish religious practices, suggesting that what was going on in Colossae is similar to the scenario in Galatians: if you want to live a life pleasing to God, the Jewish law is the way to go.
The pagan-sounding elements in the passage above are explained by Tom Wright as Paul being ironic: “The master-stroke in Paul’s argument is thus that he warns ex-pagans against Judaism by portraying Judaism itself as if it were just another religion. It is a ‘philosophy’ (2:8), developed by human tradition (2:8, 22): and to follow it is to return to the same type of religion the new converts had recently abandoned” (Colossians & Philemon, pp.24-25).
2. Paul is referring to a “mystery religion”: a local pagan cult (perhaps with some Jewish elements) which focused on being initiated into a mystery, similar to Freemasonry. If you want to live a life connected to the divine, join us, we have the secret!
3. Paul is combating a Greek philosophical school (such as teaching deriving from Plato or Pythagoras; possibly even Cynic philosophers) which focused on ascetism: denying oneself bodily pleasures in order to attain spiritual enlightenment. If you want to live a spiritual life, self-denial and elimination of material desires is the answer!
4. Paul is dealing with syncretism: where Christians are being tempted to add elements of the various religions and philosophies of the culture around. In essence, the answer is “(d) all of the above.” This is why his description has so many disparate elements: they are being influenced by Jewish practices, pagan mystery religions, and Greek ascetism. It’s a mixture which promises self-control, enlightenment, and fulfilment. If you want to experience life to the full, this is what you need to add to your faith in Jesus.
Although the first option (Judaism) is attractive and coherent, I don’t think it quite does justice to all of the elements and the way Paul expresses them in Colossians. I think it makes most sense to see the problem as syncretism – not so much a rival religion as adding to the Gospel, and thereby watering it down to something that was more in line with the surrounding culture. (But if you go with one of the other options, the end result application-wise is quite similar, as Christians are still facing the temptation to add something to faith in Christ.)
Tomorrow, we’ll look at how we tend to do this – perhaps not with Jewish practices, Greek philosophy, or mystery cults, but with the philosophies and self-help strategies of our own surrounding culture. Have a think about this during the day.
We’ll also look at the broad-brush strategies Paul uses in order to counter this tendency.
* See summary in Talbot, Ephesians and Colossians, pp. 206-209. My presentation here is overly-simplified, but is designed to give you the vibe of the various alternatives.