THE MISTAKEN THINKERS
THE MISTAKEN THINKERS (Colossians 1:15-23 continued)
It is one of the facts of the human mind that a man thinks only as much as he has to. It is not until a man finds his faith opposed and attacked that he really begins to think out its implications. It is not until the Church is confronted with some dangerous heresy that she begins to realize the riches of orthodoxy. It is characteristic of Christianity that it can always produce new riches to meet a new situation.
When Paul wrote Colossians, he was not writing in a vacuum. He was writing, as we have already seen in the introduction, to meet a very definite situation. There was a tendency of thought in the early Church called Gnosticism. Its devotees were called Gnostics, which more or less means the intellectual ones. These men were dissatisfied with what they considered the rude simplicity of Christianity and wished to turn it into a philosophy and to align it with the other philosophies which held the field at that time.
The Gnostics began with the basic assumption that matter was altogether evil and spirit altogether good. They further held that matter was eternal and that it was out of this evil matter that the world was created. The Christian, to use the technical phrase, believes in creation out of nothing; the Gnostic believed in creation out of evil matter.
Now God was spirit and if spirit was altogether good and matter essentially evil, it followed, as the Gnostic saw it, that the true God could not touch matter and, therefore, could not himself be the agent of creation. So the Gnostics believed that God put forth a series of emanations, each a little further away from God until at last there was one so distant from God, that it could handle matter and create the world.
The Gnostics went further. As the emanations went further and further from God, they became more and more ignorant of him. And in the very distant emanations there was not only ignorance of God, but also hostility to him. The Gnostics came to the conclusion that the emanation who created the world was both ignorant of and hostile to the true God; and sometimes they identified that emanation with the God of the Old Testament.
This has certain logical consequences.
(i) As the Gnostics saw it, the creator was not God but someone hostile to him; and the world was not God's world but that of a power hostile to him. That is why Paul insists that God did create the world, and that his agent in creation was no ignorant and hostile emanation but Jesus Christ, his Son (Colossians 1:16).
(ii) As the Gnostics saw it, Jesus Christ was by no means unique. We have seen how they postulated a whole series of emanations between the world and God. They insisted that Jesus was merely one of these emanations. He might stand high in the series; he might even stand highest; but he was only one of many. Paul meets this by insisting that in Jesus Christ all fullness dwells (Colossians 1:19); that in him there is the fullness of the godhead in bodily form (Colossians 2:9). One of the supreme objects of Colossians is to insist that Jesus is utterly unique and that in him there is the whole of God.
(iii) As the Gnostics saw it, this had another consequence with regard to Jesus. If matter was altogether evil, it followed that the body was altogether evil. It followed further that he who was the revelation of God, could not have had a real body. He could have been nothing more than a spiritual phantom in bodily form. The Gnostics completely denied the real manhood of Jesus. In their own writings they, for instance, set it down that when Jesus walked, he left no footprints on the ground. That is why Paul uses such startling phraseology in Colossians. He speaks of Jesus reconciling man to God in his body of flesh (Colossians 1:22); he says that the fullness of the godhead dwelt in him bodily. In opposition to the Gnostics, Paul insisted on the flesh and blood manhood of Jesus.
(iv) The task of man is to find his way to God. As the Gnostics saw it, that way was barred. Between this world and God there was this vast series of emanations. Before the soul could rise to God, it had to get past the barrier of each of these emanations. To pass each barrier special knowledge and special passwords were needed; it was these passwords and that knowledge that the Gnostics claimed to give. This meant two things.
(a) It meant that salvation was intellectual knowledge. To meet that Paul insists that salvation is not knowledge; it is redemption and the forgiveness of sins. The Gnostic teachers held that the so-called simple truths of the gospel were not nearly enough. To find its way to God the soul needed far more than that; it needed the elaborate knowledge and the secret passwords which Gnosticism alone could give. So Paul insists that nothing more is needed than the saving truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
(b) If salvation depended on this elaborate knowledge, it was clearly not for every man but only for the intellectual. So the Gnostics divided mankind into the spiritual and the earthly; and only the spiritual could be truly saved. Full salvation was beyond the scope of the ordinary man. It is with that in mind that Paul wrote the great verse Colossians 1:28. It was his aim to warn every man and to teach every man, and so to present every man mature in Christ Jesus. Against a salvation possible for only a limited intellectual minority, Paul presents a gospel which is for every man, however simple and unlettered or however wise and learned he may be.
These, then, were the great Gnostic doctrines; and all the time we are studying this passage, and indeed the whole letter, we must have them in our mind, for only against them does Paul's language become intelligible and relevant.
From William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
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