Today, we hear a lot about “fake news,” but what exactly is it? Of course, that depends on who you ask. Penn State University defines fake news as “sources that intentionally fabricate information, disseminate deceptive content, or grossly distort actual news reports, usually to advance a specific political perspective.”[i] That definition is as good as any. In the end, fake news erodes journalistic integrity and undermines the important role that truth plays in a free society.
However, a false Christ is more damaging than fake news. A false Christ can lead people away from the truth faster than a CNN news cycle, for a longer period of time, and with eternal consequences. Regarding the last days, Jesus warned, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray” (Matthew 24:4-5).
Prophetically, the “last days” began two thousand years ago. Thus, it should not surprise us that false Christs and attacks upon the real Jesus crept into the early church, which is why the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church at Colossae. Paul had never visited the church that Epaphras founded in the Lycus Valley. But when he heard that a heresy about the nature of Christ threatened the mostly Gentile congregation, the imprisoned apostle responded with some of the most soaring Christology found anywhere in the New Testament, on the same scale as John’s treatise about the Logos (John 1:1-14).
For example, Paul speaks of Jesus Christ as the “image of the invisible God” (1:15), the creator and sustainer of all things (1:16-17), the head of His body, the church (1:18), the fullness of God in bodily form (1:19), and the One who reconciles all things to Himself in heaven and on earth (1:20). Paul is just getting warmed up in chapter 1! After a study of Colossians, William Barclay said, “It is not until the church is confronted with some dangerous heresy that she begins to realize the riches of orthodoxy.”[ii]
In Colossians, Paul travels deep into the substance of the Christian faith to demonstrate that Jesus is greater than what the false teachers were presenting, and then applies the reality of Christ to everyday life in the home, work, and relationships. This stop on the ultimate road trip through the Bible presents us with some of the most vivid pictures of Jesus, who is the Christ.
Ascendency of Christ
Paul begins with thanksgiving and prayer for the Colossians (1:1-14). He thanks God for the fruit of the gospel in them—faith, hope, and love. Then, he prays for them in a manner that models how Christians should pray for each other. For example, “And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (1:9-10). Paul also reminds the Colossians that God delivered them “from the domain of darkness” and placed them into the “kingdom of his beloved Son” (1:13).
Colossians 1:15-23 contains some of the loftiest language about Jesus Christ found anywhere in the Bible. Paul puts to rest any notion that Jesus was less than who He claimed to be. Counteracting the less-than heresy ripping through the Colossian church, Jesus is supreme, greater than anything we can imagine Him to be. He is greater than the “great teacher” and “good moral leader” that so many people today say He was. He is certainly greater than what the false teachers in Colossae said of Him.
Two thousand years ago, the Gnostics taught that Jesus was a derivation of God, but not actually Him. Like the rays of the sun, the Gnostic Jesus emanated from the supreme God. But just as a ray of sunshine was not the sun, so Gnostic Jesus was not actually God.
The Gnostic Jesus has a lot in common with today’s New Age Christ, who is nothing more than a guru that achieved a higher spirituality than others like him. Discovering the god or Christ in you is the aim of New Age spirituality, which borrows the terminology of orthodox Christianity and then redefines it. With fewer words than Abraham Lincoln spoke in his Gettysburg Address, Paul crushes the fake news nonsense about Jesus put forth by the old and new Gnostics.
Once Paul establishes who Jesus is, he pivots to who we are in Christ. In summary, we were “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (1:21). However, we are now in Christ—“reconciled,” “holy and blameless,” and “above reproach” (1:23).
This sets up Paul’s discussion about the mystery of Christ in you (1:24-29), which he applies to the way we suffer and serve. This divine mystery is about the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the fulfillment of God’s promise to restore all things. It also includes the future resurrection, our eternal inheritance, and the wisdom of Christ. “He is the one we proclaim,” Paul says, “so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (1:29). Rhetorically, Paul takes the Colossians and us to a high and lofty place.
Alive in Christ
In chapter 2, Paul warms up the letter relationally by telling the Colossians, “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face.” He encourages them to be “knit together in love.” Then, he applies the mystery of Christ to their daily walk with Jesus by saying, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (2:1-7).
After warm greetings and encouragement, Paul returns to his concern about what threatens the church. “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (2:8). Paul’s warning should make us think of what philosophies and human traditions threaten the orthodoxy of the Christian faith today: Secular humanism, moral relativism, Darwinian evolution, sexual and gender revolution, even socialism and communism.
The deep roots of our faith protect us against the kidnapping of our thoughts. Those deep roots include five realities, expressed eloquently by Paul. In summary, he says believers are complete in Christ (2:9-10), sanctified in Christ (2:11), alive in Christ (2:12-13), acquitted in Christ (2:13-14), and victorious in Christ (2:15).
In 2:16-23, Paul argues that the real substance of our faith grows in a community that offers real conversations about real faith. Also, the real substance of our faith is not found in rules or rituals but in a real relationship with Jesus Christ, which is something that legalism, mysticism, and asceticism cannot produce.
New Identity in Christ
In chapter 3, Paul transitions to the practical implications of the Jesus-is-greater-than proposition. Because the devil is an identity thief, believers in Jesus must understand, embrace, and live out our identity in Christ. In 3:1-4, Paul uses words like “died,” “raised,” “seated,” “hidden,” and “glorified” to describe our position in Christ.
Living out our identity in Christ starts by setting our minds “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” and by dressing for spiritual success. In 3:5-17, Paul instructs the Colossians and us to put off the old self and put on the new self. He starts negatively by saying, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” and points to the vices of the flesh, starting with “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” A believer cannot thrive in Christ apart from the daily mortification of the flesh.
Then, Paul pivots to a list of social sins, including anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk from your mouth, and lying. These, too, must be put to death. Wiersbe says, “These sins belong to the old life and have no place in our new life in Christ.”[iii] After believers put off the vices of the flesh negatively, we must positively put on the virtues of the Spirit.
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 3:12-14
Now, Paul uses words that speak of our identity in Christ, like “chosen,” “holy,” “loved,” and “forgiven.” Putting on the virtues of the Spirit yields peace in our hearts and gratitude (3:15). The apostle tells us to renew our minds with the word of God (3:16) and encourages us to get connected in biblical community, the place where “there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (3:12).
In other words, the united church of Christ is the best incubator of spiritual transformation for followers in Jesus. We cannot live out who we are in Christ apart from a deep connection to a local church.
Christ, who is our life, also impacts three spheres of human relationships: Husbands and wives (3:18-19), parents and children (3:20-21), and employers and employees (3:22-4:1). It is “fitting in the Lord” for wives to respect their husbands and for husbands to show their wives love and kindness. Because the home is the first place where children learn to respect divine authority, Paul instructs children to obey their parents and fathers not to sow seeds of anger in their kids. Considering who Jesus Christ is, the apostle writes to bondservants, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”
Christ in Everyday Life
As much as Paul takes the Colossians and us to the highest place of understanding about the person and nature of Jesus Christ, he never loses sight of the practical expressions of faith in everyday life. As he closes his letter to the Colossians, the apostle makes it clear that Christians should remain personally alert in prayer; prayer must also bathe and empower the proclamation of the gospel.
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. 4:2-4
Paul continues by encouraging the Colossians and us to live wisely in word and deed (4:5-6). Wiersbe concurs by saying, “The Christian’s walk and talk must be in harmony with each other.”
Finally, Paul lands the plane with some of the most personal and hospitable words found anywhere in his epistles (4:5-18). He mentions the names of eleven people with whom he had a personal and ministry relationship: Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark, Barnabas, Justus, Epaphras, Luke, Demas, Nympha, and Archippus. Each has a story to tell that relates to the Jesus-is-greater-than proposition, which Paul presents throughout the letter.
For example, Jesus is greater than ethnic tensions, evidenced by both Jews and Gentiles in the list of Paul’s close companions. Jesus is greater than the failures of your past. If you have doubts about that, ask Onesimus, the runaway slave, and Mark, who abandoned Paul and Barnabas on the mission field. Jesus is greater than the pleasures of this world, which is something Demas, “having loved this present world,” learned the hard way after forsaking Paul and their ministry partnership (2 Timothy 4:10 KJV). And Paul’s personal testimony reminds us that Jesus is greater than the sufferings we experience as followers of Jesus.
There was nothing fake about the good news of Jesus Christ that Paul proclaimed. When others attacked his Savior and Friend in a way that threatened the viability of His church, Paul responded rhetorically, theologically, practically. A clear view of Jesus Christ is always the right response to heresy about Him. And if anybody in Colossae ever doubted Paul’s apostolic authority, not to mention his ministry authenticity, he said conclusively, “Remember my chains” (4:19).
Remembering Paul’s chains is exactly what the Basilica of Saint Paul does in Rome, where the great apostle is buried. Above his gravesite in the massive house of worship sits a small box that displays the chain that held Paul captive in prison, a fitting reminder that nothing can imprison the gospel of Jesus Christ.