It is interesting that what Solomon wrote 3,000 years ago, is still true today: “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). Today the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism has crept into the Christian church and effects the thought processes of both Christian leaders and those who are members of the church.
If we understand the reason that Paul wrote his letter to the church at Colossae, we understand that Gnosticism has always been a threat to sound doctrine. When Paul penned this letter he was being held in Rome as a prisoner (Acts 21:17–28:31).
A runaway slave of Philemon, called Onesimus, had been led to Christ by Paul. This caused Paul to write a letter to Philemon, asking him to forgive Onesimus and allow him to return as a brother in Christ.
At the same time, Epaphras came to Rome requesting Paul’s help regarding a strange doctrine that was being taught at Colossae. The Christians in this church became confused by this new doctrine of Gnosticism. This caused Paul to write the letter we have today, Colossians, providing us with stunning information about who Jesus is.
Controversy Over Authorship
Some critics of the New Testament today assert that Paul did not write Colossians because he used language in this letter that is not consistent with other letters that bear his name. This is due to a misunderstanding that what Paul is writing about is much different than any problem or situation that he addressed in his other letters.
The letter to the Colossians necessitated instruction and correction that was not necessary in other letters, requiring different Greek words that were not used in these other letters. The writing style, manner of approach to problems in the church, and methods of finding solutions to these problems in the church, are in keeping with all of Paul’s letters.
One of the reasons that some object to Colossians is due to its bold assertion that Jesus is God in human flesh, existing for eternity, and is the Creator of all that exists (1:17, 2:9). Paul affirms the words of the four Gospels, that Jesus died on a Roman cross and rose from the dead (1:18-20, 2:12). Adversaries of Christ and the New Testament don’t like this evidence, and therefore consistently attack Colossians in order to try and refute its narrative.
Background For Colossians
Epaphras stayed with Paul while he was in Rome (Col. 4:12-13). Onesimus and Tychicus took Paul’s letters to their intended destinations, as described in Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 4:7-9; and Philemon. This is evidence that Paul was distributing the known Gospels that were penned by the Disciples, to the churches that existed in Asia Minor, very early in the first century. Colossians was written by 60 A.D, Paul was beheaded in 68 A.D. The Synoptic Gospels were written by 44 A.D.
Paul describes Epaphras as Paul’s “fellow prisoner,” a title that was also given to Aristarchus (Colossians 4:10; and Philem. 23). This is evidence that Epaphras wanted to stay with Paul in order to assist him while he remained in prison.
Sidebar: It is interesting that the manner of fact style of Paul’s letter to Colossians, reflects the certainty that this is a genuine, truthful, and accurate personal letter that removes all doubts about its authenticity. In ancient literature, rarely are personal letters viewed as attempts to create myths, legends, or for the purpose of deception.
Neither Aristarchus nor Epaphras were prisoners with Paul, they were Paul’s willing companions, giving up their own comfort to help him reach people with Jesus’ Gospel.
While all these things were taking place, the heresy of Gnosticism was spreading into the Christian church at Colossae.
Gnosticism is a combination of Eastern philosophy and Jewish legalism, mixed with elements unique to gnosticism (nos-ti-cism). This term originates from the Greek word gnosis (know-sis), which means “to know.” Often we hear that an agnostic is one who does not know. The gnostics were the people who were “knew things,” or so they claimed, that other people did not know.
Whenever there is a new doctrine that appears in the Christian church, there is great interest at first because people like the latest new thing.
Concerning Gnosticism, this new thing promised a closer relationship with God than the Christian church had provided. People who were a part of Gnosticism asserted that their members could achieve “spiritual perfection.” There are claims today by some critics that Gnosticism was more popular than early Christianity. First Christian Apologist, Origin, refuted this idea in several of his extensive writings impeaching the ideas of Gnosticism at that time.
Today, we have greater number of surviving New Testament manuscripts than there are for all the apocryphal works combined. This is evidence that the Gospels and the other letters of the New Testament were copied, preserved, and distributed, in greater numbers early in the Christian church. The Gnostic doctrines contained in the apocryphal books, are not even close in their surviving numbers.
Gnosticism claimed that any person who would embrace the principles of Gnosticism could gain a full knowledge and a spiritual depth that could not be achieved by any other way.
Like all new ideas that find their way into the Christian church, this newest thing in the church at Colossae was really not new at all. It was simply a mixture of man-made philosophy based in traditions of men, lacking sound Biblical truth (Colossians 2:8).
Why Is There Evil In The World?
One of the primary reasons that the Christian church began to endorse Gnosticism in the first century was due to the question of evil in the world if a Sovereign God of love and absolute power exists.
The Gnostic philosophers presented an answer to this question that seemed reasonable. All matter is evil. A Holy God could have nothing to do with evil, therefor a series of “emanations” from God came forth from Him to His creation.
The Gnostics believed there was a powerful spirit world that made use of material things on earth to attack mankind. They also believing that angelic beings ruled the area around earth and influenced the affairs of people on earth (Col. 1:16; 2:10, 15).
The Bible teaches that God made the earth and man—perfect. He gave Adam dominion over all the earth to rule over it. The one condition to remaining ruler over earth was Adam’s continued trust in the truthfulness of what God said. The fruit represented the test for Adam’s commitment. The serpent claimed that God had not told the truth and by eating the fruit Adam could become like God and have no need for God to rule over him.
Adam’s disobedience was the first defect in the moral character of man and brought sin into the world. This defect is passed to all humans after Adam, just as his DNA is a part of our DNA today.
The truth is, the world is filled with evil, sickness, suffering and death because of sin, not because the material world is evil or God created it this way. We can take something perfect and make it imperfect by the actions of our own will. This does not mean the person who created the object made it defective, only that our incorrect use of this object caused it to be imperfect.
Jewish Legalism: Rules For Conduct
While strange Gnostic doctrines were being spread throughout the Christian church, a form of Jewish legalism also began to permeate the Christian community. Jewish believers insisted that circumcision and the dietary laws that Moses commanded, were also necessary for true spiritual growth (Col. 2:11, Col. 2:14-17).
The book of Galatians describes a departure from the basic principles of salvation through Jesus alone, to the added requirements that the Gnostics and the Judaizers imposed upon new believers.
I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ. ~Galatians 1:6-7 (NLT)
These rules for conduct were necessary, said the Gnostics, in order to define what was truly good and what was evil (Col. 2:21).
Believing that all material things are inherently evil, the Gmostics insisted that these religious laws helped believers control their fallen nature and pursue spiritual perfection. Much like the modern laws that have crept into the Christian church that specify certain procedures and practices that are necessary for spiritual growth, such as speaking in tongues, baptism for salvation, observing certain days, and obeying the traditions of the church, these added parts of the Gospel began early in the Christian church through the false premise of Gnosticism.
- Paul said that not all believers speak in tongues (1 Cor. 14).
- Paul stated the Jesus did not send him to baptize (1 Cor 1:17).
- Jesus said that man made traditions do not invalidate scripture (Matt 15:3).
Speaking in tongues is a later experience that Christians can have that is subsequent to their salvation. Baptism is an outward sign to the world of the internal commitment of the heart that a person is determined to live for Jesus. First a person believes and is saved, then they can participate in baptism. The act of baptism does not save, faith in Christ saves. The thief on the cross next to Jesus was not baptized, yet Jesus said on that day he would be with Him in paradise.
Many people today want to add things to the simple Gospel that Jesus will save anyone who turns from their sins and trust Him for their salvation. The New Testament teaches salvation by Christ alone, with nothing else required. If a person remains in their trust of Jesus throughout their entire life, they will be saved.
In the minds of the early purveyors of Gnosticism in the Christian church, these legalistic practices were essential to control sin in the life of the believer and bring them into perfection and be like Christ. This practice has been described as strict discipline, or “asceticism” (Col. 2:23).
An opposing view of Gnosticism, is the Bible’s declaration that we are saved by God’s Grace through faith. Gnosticism defines rules for behavior to make one acceptable to God; The Bible defines our acceptability to God as only possible by faith in what Jesus has done for us, not what in what we can do ourselves.
Some Christians have taken this Grace of God as approval to do anything. Since our sins bring God’s Grace, a Christian can do whatever they want. The more we sin, the more God pours out His grace on us. Paul addressed this false idea in Romans 6.
Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus.
Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace.
Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. ~Romans 6:1-18 (NLT)
The person who is truly saved and understands what it cost Jesus to die for our sins, does not want to ever return to their former lifestyle of sin. Any person who wants to continue in certain sins, such as fornication or same-sex relationships, cannot obtain salvation (1 Cor 6). There is no salvation without repentance from sin. Unless a person is willing to end their former sins and follow Jesus by a pure life, they cannot be saved. Every person that Jesus called to follow Him, He called them out of their old life, into a new life of righteousness. Our modern society has condoned people living together before marriage, approves of same-sex persons marrying and living as a couple, and the endorses the pursuit of riches and fame, as evidence of God’s blessing. In truth, these practices have always been defined as sin and they must be ended if any person truly wants to be saved.
Christians do sin after they are saved, but they do not live in a lifestyle of sin. We do make mistakes after we begin to follow Jesus and no person is sinless, but we should sin less after we determine to live for Jesus.
The Origin Of All Modern Christian Heresy
In understanding Gnosticism, we see that many of the problems that exist today in the Christian church, originated in these first century practices of the Gnostics that crept into the church. The ideas that sin is acceptable; strict legalism is desirable; God can be known only by self denial, these ideas and philosophies of men have no foundation in the word of God.
Many of these ideas came through the introduction of Gnosticism into the Christian church during its infancy. The Gnostic premise that all matter is inherently evil, led to the belief that Jesus could not be God because He lived in a human body, and the material body is evil. Gnostics stated that God would never come to us in an evil human body, therefore Jesus could not be God. Gnostic philosophy stated that God did not have personal contact with evil human beings. He sent other beings to earth to communicate with us so that we could know Him.
In response to this heresy, Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians and defined Jesus as God in human flesh and the source of all that exists. It was the language specifying Jesus as God that was communicated in this letter to the believers at Colossae that critics assert is not authentic. We find the same language defining Jesus as God, in a majority of the New Testament texts. Colossians is not unique in defining Jesus as both Messiah and Yahweh from the Old Testament.
Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see. ~Colossians 1:15-16
Paul was describing and correcting a problem at Colossae regarding false doctrine that was unique at that time and not observed in any other letter of the New Testament. Because Paul is speaking to different problems, he uses language that is also different from his other letters.
Paul made it clear that Jesus’ arrival on earth was the fulfillment of God’s purpose in revealing Himself to the world. Jesus told Philip that seeing Him is the same as seeing God (John 14:9). The appearance of Jesus on earth, forever settles the issues of sin (Col. 1:20) and defines the end of satan’s limited and evil kingdom on earth (Col. 2:15).
Why Evil Exists On Earth
It is because of satan’s influence in the lives of people on earth who do not know God, that we see so much evil and suffering. Jesus came to earth to destroy the works of the devil and bring a righteous kingdom to mankind on earth (1 John 3:8). In the present time that we live, God has exercised His prerogative to delay judgement by giving everyone from the time He rose from the dead, until He returns again to earth, the opportunity to change their mind, turn from their sins, and receive the salvation Jesus died to give us.
When this time of Grace ends, Jesus will return to earth and judge the world. He will dispatch satan to the Lake of Fire forever, and end all evil, sickness, suffering and death on earth (Rev 20-21).
Paul is specific that Jesus came to end the legal demands of the law (Col. 2:14-17). Jesus lived a perfect and sinless life and fulfilled all the demands of the law. Those who place themselves in Christ, also fulfill all that the law demands. God see everyone as righteous, who trust in Christ, because of what He accomplished for us.
We are not made right with God or know Him more fully by strict religious practices or Gnosticism. We know God by His word and through Christ who came to earth as God and revealed God to us.
Matter is not evil. The human body is not evil. We are born with a sin nature that began with Adam’s disobedience to God. We use our bodies for sin by choice and because our fallen nature demands it. Our bodies are not evil, it is our sin nature that is evil and cause us to use our bodies for sin.
Paul Describes The Conundrum Of Our Sin Nature In Romans 7
The trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. ~Romans 7:14-25 (NLT)
Gnosticism is wrong. If the human body was inherently evil, then Jesus would never have come to earth in a human body. We are born with a sin nature, passed on to us by our father, Adam.
Jesus’ Father was God, therefore, as a man He had no sin nature. Jesus was born perfect and remained perfect throughout His 33 1/2 years on earth. Being without sin, and being God in a human body, Jesus was the only person ever to have live that was uniquely qualified to offer His life for all of our lives.
As God, Jesus could never die. As a man, Jesus could take a human body, live a sinless life, offer His life in exchange for ours by taking our sins upon Himself and remove every sin from our record. Jesus paid the penalty that we deserved, satisfying the righteous requirements of God’s Holy Law. Jesus rose from the dead in confirmation that His death for us to remove our sins was acceptable to the Father. Jesus defeated death and is the only person, never to die again.
All those who believe these things are counted as righteous by God and have the right to live forever with Him in heaven.
It is only by knowing God through Jesus Christ that we can be made spiritually perfect. No amount of striving for “spiritual perfection” or “spiritual fullness” by formulas, disciplines, or rituals, can ever make anyone perfect. These are representations of man’s religions, but not the manner in which God makes a person perfect.
Mixing Biblical Christianity with yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Eastern mysticism, and other practices like these, are forbidden by scripture because their origin is in the lies of satan who promises perfection by self effort, not by the perfection of Christ who died for us.
Heresy in the Christian church began not long after the church was established by Jesus and spread into Asia Minor. The heresy of Gnosticism has existed for the past 2,000 years, and it will continue to try its influence in the church until Jesus comes again.
The Bible teaches that God is near us, that God made all things good (though they can be used for evil), and that Christ has delivered His followers from the powers of darkness (Col. 1:13).
We know what the heresy of Gnosticism is today and those who read this short essay will understand that its power and influence are still active in the church. People still like the idea of doing something themselves in order to please God, rather than understanding that Jesus has done everything for us already. Those who fully trust in Jesus for all of their lives, are perfect in the sight of God right now and nothing that they ever do while on earth will cause God to love them more than He does right now.
The way into spiritual growth is by a diligent study of the Bible, prayer, and fellowship with other like-minded believers.
Categories: Complicating a Relationship with God, Defending the Gospel, Do not imitate evil, Following Jesus, Forgiveness of Sin, Gnosticism, How Salvation Occurs, Religion vs. Relationship, Robert Clifton Robinson, True Repentance