Summary: The church in Colossae was threatened by a deception. Fellow-Christians were persuasively trying to merge the church with the mystery religions. They argued that Christ is only one of many supernatural beings, that the mysteries will allow them to receive secret knowledge that is not available from Christ, resulting in a much better Christian experience. Paul refutes this, claiming that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” and “In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells”.
2:1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have on your behalf and for those who are at Laodicea, and for all those who have not personally seen my face, 2:2 that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, 2:3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 2:4 I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument.
Struggle (2:1) – This letter is motivated by Paul’s concern for the Colossians. God’s actions are always motivated by love. The same is true for His true ministers.
Laodicea (2:1) was nearby church; probably with similar problems. Laodicea is also the church to which the seventh letter in Revelation was addressed (Rev. 3:14).
No one will delude you (2:4) – Verse 4 is discussed first because it provides the context for verses 2 and 3. Colossians has been written to address a specific threat in that church. In verse 4 Paul refers to a delusion. Chapter 2 contains four warnings that use the phrase “no one”:
2:4 I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument
2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception
2:16 Therefore no one is to act as your judge …
2:18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by …
With persuasive argument (2:4) – The implication is that there was someone or some group in that church that was able to argue persuasively and what he said sounded right, but what it was a deception (2:8) and a fraud (2:18). That was not somebody outside the church, but somebody right inside the church.
I say this so that (2:4) – This phrase is important for the interpretation of this letter. It is assumed here that the points which Paul emphasizes, compared to his other letters, are intended to address the specific threat in Colossae, and state the opposite of what was argued by the deception. We do not know exactly what that threat was. We only have 50% of the argument. We only have Paul’s response to the deception and must reconstruct the nature of that deception from Paul’s defense against it. This principle will be applied to verses 2 and 3.
Academics have researched the historical situation in Colossae for centuries from sources outside the Bible to determine the nature of the Colossian deception, but they fail to agree. The proposal here is that we must limit ourselves to this letter to understand the nature of the deception.
Full assurance (2:2) – Paul wishes the Colossians to have “full assurance” (2:2). This implies that the deception took away from the Colossians their “full assurance” by telling them that they have a less than optimum Christian experience. Christians presumably were led to believe that they do not surrender their faith in Christ by submitting to the Colossian deception, but that they would receive something that would otherwise not be possible. Paul opposes this deception by assuring the Colossians that they can have “full assurance” from “a true knowledge of God’s mystery”, which is Christ (2:2).
God’s mystery (2:2) – It is proposed here that Paul’s frequent use of the word “mystery” in the letter to the Colossians (1:26, 27; 2:2; 4:3) implies that the deception in the church in Colossae was related to the mystery religions that were rising at the very time Christianity was spreading across Roman Empire and reached their peak of popularity in the first three centuries AD:
These were various secret cults. Each had an initiation rite through which cult secrets (the mysteries) were revealed to the initiates (mystai). Initiates were not allowed to reveal particulars of the initiation, the ritual practice or the cult secrets to outsiders. The mysteries also included some sort of promise for a better life after death. Through the initiation, a worshipper became united with the god and thus shared in divine power and, perhaps, immortality. The mysteries religions drew from the myths of paganism “and set forth that the gods were ultimately reducible to a single being considered under different aspects, and that the multiple names by which they were worshipped were the equivalent of that of Helios (the Sun)” (Franz Cumont, “Mystries of Mithra” p.187)
Since Paul describes the Christian faith as similar to the mystery religions, critics of the Bible conclude that Christianity did in fact evolve from the mystery religions. It is proposed here that Paul used the terminology of the mystery religion to describe the Christian faith to thereby show Christianity as superior to the mystery religions.
True knowledge (2:2) – In the current verses and also elsewhere in the letter Paul emphasizes Knowledge. “True knowledge” is “Christ Himself” (2:2). In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:3). Paul has not ceased to pray for the Colossians that they “may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9), and that they “put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge” (3:10). The gospel is “the word of truth” (1:5), explaining “the grace of God in truth” (1:6).
This emphasis on knowledge and truth is significant because these ancient mystery religions claimed to offer true “wisdom and knowledge” that was only available to the ‘mystai’ (initiates). Paul’s emphasis of “true knowledge” therefore lends further support to the proposal that the deception in Colossae was related to the mystery religions.
In whom are hidden all – In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:3). “By Him all things were created” (1:16). “In Him all things hold together” (1:17). “He … will come to have first place in everything” (1:18). “It was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him” (1:19). “In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (2:9). Notice how frequently the words “all” and “everything” are used in the description of Christ. Teachers often comment that Colossians is Paul’s most elevated description of Christ. But there is a reason for Paul’s “Christology”, as theologians call it, in this letter. The Colossian deception taught that Christ is but one among many. They might even have taught that Christ is the most important of the heavenly beings, but still only one among many. Paul refutes this, claiming that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” and “In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells”. Therefore nothing exists and nothing can be found outside of Christ.
Colossians Table of Contents