What the Bible says about
(From Forerunner Commentary)
The church at Colossae was under intense pressure from the society around it. Heresy was making inroads into the church. Forms of gnosticism, asceticism, and sophistry were popular in the city.
- Gnosticism combined ideas from Greek philosophy, oriental mysticism, and Christianity - a classic example of syncretism, combining elements of different religions. Some of the "new" doctrines in the church have followed this philosophy.
- Asceticism taught a person to lead a life of contemplation and rigorous self-denial and abstinence. As the church taught a proper enjoyment of life, the Christians at Colossae stood out as being different. Some members still desired to be accepted by the world around them. Elements of an attitude of wanting outside acceptance have been evident recently in the church.
- Sophistry concluded that there is no such thing as objective truth and the highest act of man was "civic excellence." Both of these ideas, moral relativity and civic duty, have been present in certain churches of God today, as well as in Paul's time.
So what is Paul's advice?
For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you might be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding. (Colossians 1:9)
He tells them to "continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast" (verse 23). To them has been revealed a mystery hidden from the ages - and from the philosophers (verses 26-28). This is precious truth, and Paul worries for the Colossians (and interestingly, the Laodiceans; Colossians 2:1; 4:16) that their minds might turn away to worthless ideas. In God the Father and Jesus Christ are contained "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge," and Paul warns them not to be taken in by any man speaking enticing words (verses 2-4). In effect, he is saying, "When others are saying, 'Wow!' beware! We have a way to check it out. If we compare it to what Christ teaches us, we can judge its worth."
In verse 18, he speaks of men "vainly puffed up by [their] fleshly mind," or as the Lamsa translation reads, "intellectual powers." Lying among the members was a problem in the church at that time (Colossians 3:9). It seems that bending the truth or telling outright falsehoods to convince others to accept one's philosophy was normal in Colossae. Such a one gained a reputation for "wisdom" and became proud.
Beware of Philosophy
The Devil asserted that by taking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, human eyes would be opened—implying wisdom and enlightenment—to allow a person to know good and evil as God does. Immediately, Satan places the emphasis on knowing, but it is contrasted with living eternally. Satan proposes that mankind should be like God in taking to himself the knowledge—the definition—of what is right and wrong, asserting that this is a good thing! In contrast, the Tree of Life represents a way of living in which the meaning of good and evil already exists, and eternal life involves submitting through the Holy Spirit to that definition and the Sovereign who is its source.
Likewise, the Gnostics are those who know—who pursue mystical knowledge that they believe holds the key to eternal life through advancing beyond the physical and into the spiritual realm. Gnostics believed the key to eternal life was contained in right interpretation—knowledge—of those esoteric sayings.
The book of Revelation expounds on the Tree of Life in two places:
· To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7)
· Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into [New Jerusalem]. (Revelation 22:14)
The Tree of Life, then, is associated with a way of life—one that requires overcoming (growth against a standard of righteousness) and keeping (doing) God's commandments. The only ones who are allowed to partake of the Tree of Life are those who have changed themselves (with God's help, by His Spirit) to begin living in the same manner as He does. To those who submit to His standard of righteousness, then, He grants life that is both endless and of the same quality that He enjoys.
Satan, though, in addition to casting doubt on what God plainly says, and implying that God is unfair by withholding good things, offers a shortcut. He says, "You do not need to follow God's way, for it is obviously unfair and far too stringent. You can follow your own way. You can take knowledge to yourself of what is good and what is evil. You can be just like God in determining what is right and wrong." Adam and Eve took the bait, and ever since, man has rejected God's standard of righteousness in favor of his own.
This heresy is easily seen in the antinomianism (literally, "against law") of the Gnostics, who may not have been against every law, but were certainly against any law that impinged upon their standard of conduct. Thus the ascetic Gnostics who grieved the Christians in Colossae held to manmade regulations of "do not touch, do not taste, do not handle" (Colossians 2:20-21), while rejecting the command to "rejoice" with food and drink during the God-ordained festivals. Similarly, mainstream Christianity will (rightly) use portions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy to point out God's abhorrence of abortion and homosexuality, but will claim that the same law is "done away" when it comes to the Sabbath and holy days. They have taken to themselves the knowledge of what is good and what is evil, establishing their own standard of righteousness.
A core issue of the Bible is whether we submit to God's governance or try to form a government based on our own perception of what is good or what works. God's way results in eternal life, but it comes with the obligation to submit ourselves to God. It requires keeping all of His commandments and overcoming our human weaknesses that do not rise to that standard. Satan, conversely, seeks to persuade us to do our own thing and to usurp God's prerogative in defining right living. He encourages us to be enlightened, to have our eyes opened, by doubting God and rejecting His way.
David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Three: Satan's Three Heresies
Verse 24 gives a concluding statement as to why Israel was taken into captivity. There are two possibilities regarding Israel's Sabbath breaking. 1) Israel completely rejected God's Sabbath for another day. This possibility exists due to the instances of the "My/their" or "Mine/yours" contrast, that is, My Sabbath as opposed to your Sabbath. 2) They polluted the Sabbath by careless, self-centered observance.
The probability is that they did both—some people completely rejected the Sabbath, while others carelessly observed it. However, it was because of Sabbath-breaking, a type of idolatry, that they went into captivity.
When we look at secular history, even biblical history, and society around us, how to keep this day is a mixed bag. On the surface, what we see in the New Testament is rigorous legalism from the Pharisees or asceticism from the Gentiles. Today, we might call that an extreme "rightism" or perhaps a reactionary conservatism.
In today's world, though, we are confronted with the other side of the coin. We do not even begin to know how to keep the Sabbath because, from our earliest days, our culture's emphasis has been on Sunday, a day that cannot be kept holy because it was never made holy!
The cycle of six workdays and one day of rest and worship is a legacy of the Bible. But in fairly recent history, society has undergone a radical transformation because of scientific, industrial, and technological achievements. A shorter workweek provides us more leisure time. Businesses, however, make every effort to make the best use of time, to maximize production by scheduling work shifts so that the weekly cycle becomes a blur.
We have come to the place where we think that time totally belongs to us, and we can use it as we good and well please. This, in turn, makes a person very conscious of his free time. What does almost every individual do? He does the same thing that a business does. Every bit of time in a person's life is booked up because he wants to get the most out of life.
Even among those who are reasonably religious, the result has been that Sunday has become the hour of worship. The older among us can probably remember that, in the community, Sunday was once set aside very seriously. People did not work. They usually spent the day at home. Maybe the most secular thing they allowed themselves to do was to read the Sunday newspaper. Some, perhaps, did not even listen to the radio on Sunday because, to them, the day was holy.
But over the years, Sunday worship—which used to be kept somewhat as God expects us to keep the Sabbath—has now become, even among religious folks, an hour rather than a day of worship. People go to church for that one hour then perhaps return home. Or, maybe they go to a Sunday brunch at a restaurant. They spend the rest of the time on that day either making money or seeking their own pleasure.
All the while, the real Sabbath is ridiculed or ignored. This is what confronts us when we begin trying to keep it. A similar environment even affects those who continue to keep it. When we look in the Bible, we find that God does not give us many specifics as to how to keep it. God does, however, give us a number of broad principles, and He expects us to extrapolate from those principles in applying them.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fourth Commandment (Part 2)
A clue to the "Nicolaitanism" that Christ hates so vehemently (Revelation 2:6,15) is the lone occurrence of the name "Nicolas" here. It appears in the section describing the dispute between the Hebrews and the Hellenists over the neglect of the latter's widows. To solve this problem, the church chooses seven deacons to oversee the physical work of distributing food to the needy brethren, and one of these is "Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch."
Again, this description provides the most meager of hints about the man but enough to propose some conclusions. Nicolas is a Hellenist, meaning primarily that he spoke Greek, but probably also suggesting that he possessed a Greek education. As such, "they [the 'Hellenists'] maintained a more liberal outlook than the 'Hebrews,' including the apostles" (F.F. Bruce, New Testament History, p. 219), especially regarding keeping the law. This "liberal outlook" toward the law later formed the heart of the debate at the Council of Jerusalem in AD 49 (Acts 15).
That Luke calls him a proselyte tells us that he is a Gentile who converted to Judaism before his calling to Christianity. Becoming a proselyte required a Gentile to keep Jewish law in its entirety, undergo circumcision, be baptized, and make a special sacrifice at the Temple. This rigorous process indicates that Nicolas must also have been quite devout and dedicated in his beliefs. The church's choice of him as one of the first deacons reveals he likely possessed standout natural abilities and leadership qualities, as well as fulfilling the apostles' qualifications of being "of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom" (Acts 6:3).
The last tidbit of information is that he is from Antioch, the largest city and capital of the Roman province of Syria. The city's residents—Greeks, Macedonians, Syrians, Jews, Romans, and others—brought to it their own languages, cultures, philosophies, and religions. F.F. Bruce writes, "Its cosmopolitan population and material wealth provided an apt setting for cultural exchange and religious syncretism" (ibid., p. 264). This urban, multicultural, religious mélange formed Nicolas' background.
Unfortunately, it is in the context of syncretism that Nicolas is last mentioned in the post-biblical, historical record. Both Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.26.3; 3.10.6) and Clement of Alexandria (Miscellanies, 3.4.25f) consider Nicolas of Antioch to be the founder of the Gnostic sect known as the Nicolaitans. Another early writer, Hippolytus, adds that Nicolas "departed from sound doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifferency of both life and food" (Refutation of All Heresies, 7.24), meaning he taught the Gnostic belief of the irrelevance of physical things. This reinforces Clement's claim that Nicolas became an ascetic and that his followers later perverted his teachings to encompass idolatry and immorality (2.20.12), becoming what we know as Nicolaitans.
From this information, we can hypothesize the evolution of Nicolaitanism. Roman church historian Eusebius writes that Nicolas himself was a moral man (Ecclesiastical History, 3.29). Though sincere and devout, he came to believe that the only way to grow spiritually was to consider his body and its desires as unimportant. In this way, he could ignore them in favor of spiritual pursuits. His fundamental doctrine appears to have been "the flesh must be treated with contempt."
Over the years, however, this teaching took on a more Gnostic spin: Since the flesh is unimportant, even contemptible, what one does in the flesh is of no consequence. Spiritual life, growth, and ultimately salvation occur in the soul, and since God is spirit, He has no regard for the flesh. Therefore, Nicolaitans reasoned, what does it matter if one satisfies the flesh's desires? At some point in its early history, then, Nicolaitanism evolved from an ascetic philosophy to a licentious one—one that Christ says He hates.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Here is the earliest indication of Gnosticism as a religion—or at least a philosophy, a way of life that eventually became a religion—having an impact on the Christian church. Gnosticism was mystical and charismatic, not rational. Rational means "relating to, based upon, or agreeable to reason." Mystical means "having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence." Gnosticism was ascetic and exclusivist, and it relied heavily on magic.
When these elements are combined with Jewish zeal, a religion was created that undoubtedly appealed to a large segment of the Christian church. Paul goes on to show in the book of Galatians that the primary racial group in the foreground of the book of Galatians are not Gentiles. They were Jews who were practicing Halakah, but who had been heavily influenced by Gnosticism, having made it part of their worship routine, that is, a part of their lives.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 26)
Colossians 2:8-10 gives another general definition of Gnosticism, as well as how to combat it. Paul is writing about a philosophy like Stoicism, not a specific religion, such as Judaism. This is important to recognize, since in verse 16, Paul mentions the Sabbath and holy days, and it is commonly assumed that Paul condemns their observance. Yet, he does not - he warns against a philosophy that disparaged the feasting and joyous observance of the Sabbath and holy days. This is why Paul tells the Colossians to "let no one judge you" with regard to eating, drinking, or observing the weekly and annual Sabbaths - rather than what is commonly read into Colossians 2:16: "There is no reason to keep the Sabbath or holy days." Christians in Colossae were being pressured by the ascetic society around them, which would have looked down on their feasting.
This is confirmed in the rest of Colossians 2, which deals primarily with asceticism (see especially Colossians 2:21-23). Some branches of Gnosticism adhered to asceticism as a way to free the eternal spirit by living regimented, plain, and insular lives. (Conversely, some Gnostics went to the other extreme - practicing hedonism - believing that what they did with their bodies did not make any difference since only spirit mattered.)
Paul says that this philosophy and its associated doctrines were plausible, but they were not based on solid arguments. He calls them "vain deceit" (KJV) or "empty deceit" (NKJV). They may sound good, depending upon one's inclination, but they endanger church members. The apostle writes that they would be "spoiled" (KJV), which does not necessarily mean being "corrupted," but rather of being "plundered," hence the NKJV's use of "cheated." This empty philosophy would rob or cheat them of their faith, their hope, their understanding of God, their relationship with God, their vision, and the purpose that God is working out. Once introduced, it would begin to steal away all of their true, spiritual riches.
Paul also provides two possible sources of this unsteady philosophy: "the traditions of men" and the "rudiments of the world." Examining the "rudiments of the world" first will help to explain the traditions of men. Other translations call them the "elements of the world," the "basic principles of the world," or "the powers of the world." In using this term, Paul is referring to the demonic powers that make this world, this cosmos,what it is. The source of this philosophy of salvation through special knowledge is Satan and the demons.
This explains why, when we read the histories of various religions and their branches, the same patterns arise time and again. Man does not have it within himself to pass along accurately and dependably ideas that go back to the very beginning. With an incessant drumming, the powers of the world keep prompting men and women in the same vain deceits that directly contradict the truth about God and His purpose for mankind.
Humans certainly play a role in handing down these traditions. Sunday school teachers and theologians perpetuate the Gnostic myths of the immortality of the soul, of eternal consciousness, of progressive revelation, of each person having a spark of goodness within that just needs to be fanned into a flame, and of each soul or spirit existing before in heaven and returning there upon death. Men pass these traditions on to other men, but the powers of the spirit world keep these messengers on their track and blinded to the truth.
The last phrase in Colossians 2:8 - "not according to Christ" - is a simple one, but it encapsulates what this is all about. Not a single branch of Gnosticism had the truth about Jesus Christ. That knowledge can be found only in God's Word.
David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Two: Defining Gnosticism
For centuries, people have tried to use Colossians 2:16-17 to say that Christians are not required to observe the Sabbath and holy days. This distortion stems partly from a misunderstanding of Colossians 2:14, which many claim says that the law was abolished and nailed to the cross, and partly from having a carnal mind, which is enmity against God and His law (Romans 8:7). They reason that Paul is saying in verse 16, "Therefore [since the law is done away] don't let anyone condemn you for eating unclean meats or not observing the Sabbath or holy days." Consequently, they interpret verse 17 to mean that Paul dismisses the Sabbath and holy days as unimportant symbols of future events, while emphasizing that the only truly substantive Christian need is belief in Christ. From this, they conclude that we should not concern ourselves about these days because, since Christ died, their observance is not required. This is not true.
The Colossians had been significantly influenced by pagan philosophies that taught that perfection could be achieved through self-denial and abstinence from pleasure. As a result, Colossae tended to be an ascetic community which adhered to a religion of severity, and its citizens thought anyone who was religious should behave as they did. Many of the people who had come into the Christian church in Colossae had brought their pagan philosophies with them, and they soon began to have an adverse influence on the entire congregation at Colossae. Paul corrects the people in the church who were doing this in Colossians 2:20-23. It appears some of the people had begun thinking that this self-imposed asceticism could somehow contribute to their salvation and had begun turning away from trusting in Christ. They had more faith in their unchristian works. Paul warns them about this in Colossians 2:8.
God had called the people in the church at Colossae out of their pagan, ascetic way of life, and they had begun to learn how to enjoy life in a balanced manner as God intended. This included eating meat, drinking wine, and enjoying food and fellowship when observing God's Sabbath and festivals.
Because the converted Colossians were learning how to enjoy life as God intended, the people in the ascetic community began to look down on them and condemn them. In addressing these problems, Paul reminds the Colossians that they are complete in Jesus Christ; they have no need for the pagan philosophies of this world (Colossians 2:9-10).
Paul explains in verse 16 why they need not be bothered by the attitude of the Colossian society toward their practices and way of life in the church. To paraphrase, "Do not worry about what the people in the community think about your enjoyment of eating good food, drinking wine, and joyously celebrating the Sabbath and the festivals. Christ has conquered the world and all of its rulers, so we do not need to be concerned about what the world thinks about us."
In verse 17, Paul mentions that the Sabbath and holy days are "shadows," symbols or types, of future events in the plan of God. The Sabbath is a type of the Millennium when Jesus Christ and the saints will rule the world for a thousand years. The holy days symbolize various steps in the plan of God and remind us annually of God's great purpose in creating mankind.
A literal translation of the last few words of Colossians 2:17 reads, "but the body of Christ." What is the body of Christ? I Corinthians 12:27 shows that the body of Christ is the church! The exact same Greek expression that is translated "body of Christ" in I Corinthians 12:27 (soma Christou) is used in Colossians 2:17. Paul tells the Colossians that they should not let any man judge them or call them into question about these things but rather let the church make those judgments. He is pointing the members to the example of the spiritual leaders of the church who set the tone and pattern of worship on the Sabbath and holy days, exhorting them not to worry about what anyone in the community thinks about them. A similar exhortation is given in Colossians 2:18-19.
Far from doing away with the observance of the Sabbath and holy days, Colossians 2:16-17 is one of the strongest proofs that the early church kept these days and that Paul taught the Gentiles to keep them.
Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
Are the Sabbath and Holy Days Done Away?
The word translated "covetousness" here is the Greek word pleonexia. It is an ugly word describing an ugly sin. It is ugly because it is idolatry and destructive. Lexicons describe pleonexia as "the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others." It suggests ruthless self-seeking and an arrogant assumption that others and things exist for one's own benefit.
Covetousness is idolatry because it puts self-interest and things in the place of God. A man sets up an idol because he desires to get some pleasure or satisfaction from it. So he serves to get, which is idolatry. The essence of idolatry, then, is to get for the self. Christians, though, must give themselves to God, and we do it by yielding to Him in obedience to whatever He says.
Colossians 3:5 says we are to "mortify therefore [our] members which are on the earth" (KJV). This does not mean merely to practice an ascetic self-discipline. It is a very strong word, meaning "to kill." The Christian must kill self-centeredness. He must radically transform his life, shifting the focus from himself to God. This is exactly what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:29-30. Everything that keeps us from fully obeying God and surrendering to Jesus Christ must be spiritually excised. The tenth commandment, like the first, serves as a governor, controlling whether we keep the others.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Tenth Commandment (1998)
1 John 2:3-6
This passage helps us understand how we can have the right attitude and emotion in our obedience. We come to know God through the same general process we get to know fellow human beings—by fellowshipping or experiencing life with them.
Around 500 years before Christ, Greek philosophers believed they could come to know God through intellectual reasoning and argument. This idea had a simple premise: that man is curious! They reasoned that it is man's nature to ask questions. Since God made man so, if men asked the right questions and thought them through, they would force God to reveal Himself. The flaw in this is seen in the fruit it produced. Though it supplied a number of right answers, it did not—could not—make men moral beings. Such a process could not change man's nature.
To them, religion became something akin to higher mathematics. It was intense mental activity, yielding intellectual satisfaction but no moral action. Plato and Socrates, for example, saw nothing wrong with homosexuality. The gods of Greek mythology also reflect this immorality, as they had the same weaknesses as human beings.
A few hundred years later, the Greeks pursued becoming one with God through mystery religions. One of their distinctive features was the passion play, which always had the same general theme. A god lived, suffered terribly, died a cruel, unjust death, and then rose to life again. Before being allowed to see the play, an initiate endured a long course of instruction and ascetic discipline. As he progressed in the religion, he was gradually worked into a state of intense expectation.
Then, at the right time, his instructors took him to the passion play, where they orchestrated the environment to heighten the emotional experience: cunning lighting, sensuous music, fragrant incense, and uplifting liturgy. As the story developed, the initiate became so emotionally involved that he identified himself with and believed he shared the god's suffering, victory, and immortality.
But this exercise failed them in coming to know God. Not only did it not change man's nature, but the passion play was also full of lies! The result was not true knowing but feeling. It acted like a religious drug, the effects of which were short-lived. It was an abnormal experience, somewhat like a modern Pentecostal meeting where worshippers pray down the "spirit" and speak in tongues. Such activities are escapes from the realities of ordinary life.
Contrast these Greek methods with the Bible's way of knowing God. Knowledge of God comes, not by speculation or emotionalism, but by God's direct self-revelation. In other words, God Himself initiates our knowing of Him, beginning our relationship by drawing us by His Spirit (John 6:44).
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Fruit of the Spirit: Love
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