As a young Christian, I would get impatient when Bible Study teachers would spend time talking about the background to whatever book they taught. I just wanted to grab verses here and there that I could shoehorn into my immediate circumstances. Textual context only mildly interested me; I had absolutely no use for historical or cultural background, thank you very much!
So if you’re groaning at the title of this post, anticipating a boring history lesson about First Century Colossae, I understand. It’s not what you expected from a study on discernment.
Don’t close this article yet, ladies! You need to know that I’m writing a little about the background to this epistle precisely because it will enable us to see how Paul taught discernment without once naming the false teachers that he refuted.
I thought that last comment might get your attention!
In order to use this study to demonstrate how to refute false teachers without naming them, we need to understand just a little about Colossae and the most prevalent false teachers that troubled the church there. Although Paul never directly names the people and errors that threatened the church, his original readers knew exactly who he was targeting. I want to briefly introduce them to you. I hope you’ll see similarities between those false teachers and false teachers that negatively influence the church today.
Colossae was a center of trade, much like the big cities of our era. And like the big cities of our era, its intersecting trade routes created a diverse population. Consequently, a variety of spiritual teachings floated around the city. Sadly, some of those teachings found their way into the church.
Two particular false teachings troubled Paul enough to prompt his letter to the Colossians. The church had been infiltrated by mystical philosophies that would later develop into Gnosticism. It had also been infiltrated by people who wanted to impose Jewish law on Gentile Christians.
Several passages in this epistle directly confront these two heresies. My favorite New Testament passage, for example, squarely addresses the teaching that insisted on separating the spiritual from the physical. It also addresses Jewish teaching that Jesus could not be God Incarnate.
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. ~~Colossians 1:15-20 (ESV)
This magnificent passage beautifully describes the preeminence of Christ, and I love it for that reason alone. It paints a glorious picture of Christ that invites us to worship Him. I hope it does draw you into worship!
But as you worship, think about the two false teachings that prompted Paul to write this passage. As much as he wanted to lead the Colossians to worship Christ, he also wanted to contrast solid doctrine about Christ’s deity and Incarnation with the errors being circulated in Colossae.
As we’ll see in coming weeks, Paul taught discernment to the Colossians by consistently emphasizing sound doctrine. In other situations, he did name names, setting a precedent for calling out false teachers when necessary. But his general approach — indeed, the approach we’ll see as we work through Colossians — depends almost solely on doctrine as the means to discernment.