RETURN TO COLOSSE
© Rosemary Bardsley 1996,2008
In most of his letters the apostle Paul makes only passing reference to the identity of Jesus Christ. He names the Lord Jesus Christ as the authority for his apostleship and his writing; he anchors our salvation solely and securely in the work of Jesus Christ; he binds all believers together in unity in Christ; but he gives very little sustained teaching on the true identity of Jesus.
Except in his letter to the Colossians.
For the Christians at Colosse Paul finds it necessary not only to spell out what God has done for us in Christ, but also to define who Jesus Christ is. Here at Colosse false teachers had come in, reducing the person of Christ, reducing the salvation provided by him, and reducing the peace, joy, assurance and thankfulness of the believers. I would suggest that Christianity today stands on the same brink of disaster as the Colossian church, or, perhaps, that it has already fallen over, and is hurtling downwards in a spiral of masochistic self-destruction.
The events of the mid 1990s, when Christians of various denominational persuasions embraced the teaching and the phenomena of the Toronto pundits, the unquestioning allegiance many continue to give to the Word Faith/Positive Confession mentality, and the ease with which the ‘new apostolic movement’ is convincing Christians that new revelation is needed to supplement the written Word, provide hard testimony of the depths of ignorance into which the church has fallen. If the church still knew Jesus Christ, if the church still knew the salvation he wrought for us, we would be content. There would be no feeling of lack; there would be no hungering for extra blessing, or for extra revelation. The eagerness with which Christians have grasped at these recent and current aberrations of the Gospel can at the very least speak of a gross ignorance of the truth revealed in and through Jesus Christ, or, at worst, indicate that those who have embraced these false teachings do not know the biblical Christ at all, and are therefore not Christian believers.
We cannot assume that this ignorance erupted overnight. Rather we must acknowledge that the ignorance so dramatically and urgently evident today started insidiously, subtly, in years past, with little omissions here, with slight alterations there, so that gradually, but effectively, the focus of preaching and teaching shifted, becoming anthropocentric rather than Christocentric, becoming feeling-based rather than fact-based, stressing experience rather than revealed truth as the basis for knowledge of God. We cannot point the finger here at the charismatic section of the church; rather we must confess that the charismatic section of the church exists as a direct consequence of the failure of evangelicalism to rightly preach and teach the word of truth. It is the logical extension and expression of this evangelical failure to know the Christ of the Scriptures and the salvation of the Scriptures.
The corrosion of truth that was threatening to destroy the Colossian church is in this present era destroying the contemporary church. Unless we take note of what Paul wrote to Colosse we might well wonder if the church of the twenty-first century will be recognisable as a biblical church.
Let us reconsider then what Paul wrote.
Paul taught the completeness and the finality of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
The Colossian heresy lured the believers on to revelation and knowledge of God beyond Jesus Christ. To counter this Paul teaches:
- Jesus Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God [1:15]
- He is in the position of authority over all creation [1:15]
- Everything was created by him and for him [1:16]
- He existed before everything [1:17]
- He is the cohesive principle of the universe [1:17]
- All the fullness of God dwells in him [1:19]
- In him all the treasures of God’s wisdom and knowledge are hidden [2:3]
- The fullness of the Deity lives in him in bodily form [2:9]
All of this points to the basic fact of the Gospel: that Jesus Christ is Emmanuel – God with us. All of this brings us back to that essential confession without which a person is not a Christian [John 8:24]: the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord [Romans 10:9], that Jesus Christ is the Son of God equal in all respects to the Father, to whom the same honour is due as is due to the Father [John 5:23,24].
If this is true, that Jesus Christ is God [John 1:1], that when we see and know him we see and know God [John 14:6-9]; if Paul means what he says when he writes that the fullness of God is in Jesus Christ, and that Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God, then there is no further revelation. In fact, if Jesus Christ fully reveals the Father, than any additional revelation is not revelation but darkness. It is not truth, but error. Nothing can be added to that which is full. Nothing more can be added to that which is fully revealed because there is nothing more to add. Any teaching which seeks to add to what is revealed in and through Jesus Christ can only corrupt, distort and destroy. Put on top of that which is already perfect it can only hide, disfigure and detract from the truth. Anything added to that which is full can only dilute and displace that which is already there, and by default, replace it with error.
So Paul teaches emphatically: in Jesus Christ you have God himself. In knowing him you know God. You don’t need to know anything else. You don’t need to grasp after some fresh revelation, some new truth. Don’t let anyone deceive you. Don’t listen to their arguments, no matter how good those arguments seem to be [2:4].
In assuming that its audience knows who Jesus actually is, the modern evangelical church has failed to identify Jesus Christ, and in this failure has sown the seeds for its own corruption and destruction. At best he is known as ‘Saviour’, a means by which we can be rescued from the pit of hell. We are told we must ask him to be our Saviour: whereas the bible tells us we must confess him as Lord [Romans 10:9]. We are told we must ask him to come into our hearts: whereas the Bible tells us we must believe that he is who he claims to be [John 8:24]. We are told we must believe in his death on the cross: whereas the Bible tells us we must believe in him [John 3:16ff]. Thousands of people within evangelicalism have never understood who Jesus Christ really is because they have never been taught. They are following a mythical Jesus. They have sincerely asked this mythical Jesus into their hearts. And they are grossly unsatisfied. Their Jesus has no authority, no power, no fullness of deity. Their grasping after promises of fullness, promises of blessing and promises of power is no surprise. It reflects only too clearly the inadequate Jesus they have embraced.
Along with the Colossian Christians the evangelical church must listen to this word from Paul: Jesus Christ is God. There is nothing further. There is no more. To reach beyond Christ is to reach for something other than God. To seek beyond God is to seek idolatry.
Paul taught the completeness and fullness of the salvation given us in Jesus Christ.
And Paul does not stop there. Not surprisingly the inadequate, unsatisfying Jesus of the Colossian heresy granted an equally inadequate, impotent and unsatisfying salvation. It was necessary for Paul to spell out all over again the fundamental truths of the Gospel, to explain to these deceived believers that just as Jesus Christ has in himself the full nature of God, so the salvation he gives is full and complete. He makes these points:
- God has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light [1:12].
- God rescued us from the power of darkness and removed us into the kingdom of his Son [1:13].
- We have redemption in God’s Son [1:14].
- We have forgiveness of sins, in God’s Son [1:14].
- God has reconciled us to himself through Christ’s death so that we can stand in his presence holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation [1:22].
- Christ in you is the hope of glory [1:27].
- The Christian is complete in Christ [2:10].
- The Christian has been circumcised [that is, identified as belonging to God] in Christ [2:11].
- The Christian has been buried with Christ – that is, by his identification with Christ by faith he has, in the death of Christ his substitute, paid the death penalty that disobedience to the law of God entails [2:12,20; 3:3].
- The Christian has been raised with Christ to newness of life [2:12,13;3:1].
- God has cancelled all that stood against us and condemned us, nailing it to the cross of Christ [2:14].
- By the cross God has disarmed Satan and his cohorts of their power and authority [2:15].
- The life of the believer is hidden with Christ in God [3:3].
Why was it necessary for Paul to itemize so forcefully the grand facts of faith in which we understand that Jesus Christ has done everything for us? Because the false teaching with its milk-sop Jesus offered only a milk-sop salvation, in which the whole focus of attention was on the performance and experience of the believer, rather than on the perfect and complete, finished work of Jesus Christ. Here in Colosse the believers were brought under a devastating bondage to rules and regulations. Judgement and condemnation were the order of the day. Feelings of inferiority and superiority were spawned by the teaching that one’s spirituality was gauged by one’s ritual, legalistic conformity, by one’s mystical, introspective, self-negating piety, and by one’s experience-based vision-oriented personal worship.
Some thrived on such teaching. Of these Paul said “He has lost connection with the Head” [2:19]. Others struggled on despairingly, striving to achieve this damning spirituality which the false teachers dangled tauntingly before them. To these despairing ones Paul wrote:
 ‘Since you received Christ Jesus as Lord …
- Continue to live in him
- Rooted in him
- Built up in him
- Strengthened in the faith as you were taught
- And overflow with thankfulness’ [2:6].
 ‘See to it that no-one takes you captive [enslaves you] through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ’ [2:8].
 ‘Do not let anyone judge you by [or make rules about] what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day’ [2:16].
 ‘Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize [or condemn you]’ [2:18].
 ‘Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as thought you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules …?’ [2:20].
To assess one’s relationship with God on the basis of rules, regulations and performance is to live according to the principles of the world, according to the teaching of men, which has its source with Satan and his allies. It does not come from Christ. It is not part of the Gospel. Such is the origin of all false teaching. Any teaching that makes our relationship with God depend on our piety or spirituality and not on Jesus Christ is outlawed by the biblical Gospel. The Christian is one who stands in the presence of God with his hands empty, trusting solely, exclusively, in Jesus Christ. And in this one-eyed exclusive focus on Jesus Christ there is perfect peace, perfect contentment.
The fullness of deity that is in Christ has as its companion full and complete salvation in Christ. All that was said above about the impossibility of adding to God’s self-revelation in his Son, is true also here in relation to the completeness of salvation in Christ. We cannot add anything to it and still retain it. The moment we add something of our own to the work of Jesus Christ we effectively distort, corrupt and destroy it. That which remains is no longer salvation, no longer good news, but only a despairing, washed out, powerless longing to recapture a forgotten and now impossible dream.
This word of Paul to the Christians at Colosse holds extreme significance for the evangelical church today. Right across the denominational distinctions runs the same deadening thread of a Jesus who is not Jesus, of a salvation which is not salvation, of a gospel which is most definitely not good news. Sincere believers struggle to survive, sure that their failure to know peace and joy has its cause in themselves. Instead of gazing on the Lord Jesus Christ and in him finding all that God has for them, they look at themselves, indeed they are repeatedly told by the evangelical church and its questionable offspring, to look at themselves. And there is nothing there. Then the blessing pedlars come along and offer them renewal, revival and power.
In his lack, in his spiritual starvation and desperation, the supposed evangelical Christian is deceived. Satan has his way. The false teaching is accepted. He who could have known that he is complete in Christ, had the church told him, now vainly seeks his completeness elsewhere. As in the days of Jeremiah, the false prophets prophesy ‘Peace. Peace.’ And God’s people love to have it so.
But there is no peace. Unless our focus as Christians is exclusively on Jesus Christ, the One who fully and finally reveals the Father, the One in whom there is full and complete salvation, there is no peace. Let those of us who know this Jesus return to Colosse and view there the destructive effects of an add-on Gospel, which is not gospel. Let us return to Colosse and hear there the words of the apostle Paul as he writes to rescue the believers from the brink of disaster. Let us then boldly and fearlessly shout the grand, liberating, empowering truths about Jesus Christ and his salvation, down into the abyss of despair and destruction into which the evangelical church is falling. Let us take heed of the exhortation of Isaiah:
You who bring good news to Zion go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
“He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.” Isaiah 40:9,11
Here in the arms of the Sovereign/Shepherd/Saviour there are no hard, binding regulations, there is no fearful, personal striving, there are no damning pious expectations or definitions of spirituality. Here all the destructive intrusions of Colosse are shown to be deceptions.
In Jesus our God is here with us. Our salvation is in his hands. Not ours. Let us return then to Colosse. Let us there recognize the delusions. Let us there repent of our failure to proclaim the truth. Let us there renew our allegiance to and our trust in Jesus Christ, our God, and rejoice and rest in his salvation.
[An abbreviated early edition of this article appeared in The Briefing, February 1997.]