To the Church at Colosse
July 14th, 1957 @ 10:50 AM
TO THE CHURCH AT COLOSSE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-14-57 10:50 a.m.
You are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. This is the pastor bringing the eleven o’clock morning message on the Book of Colossians. Last Sunday night, we concluded in our preaching through the Bible – we concluded preaching in the Book of Philippians, Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Now, this morning, we begin in the letter of Paul to the church at Colosse, and, if you will open your Bibles, you can easily follow the message at this morning hour.
The epistle of Paul, the apostle, to the Colossians and the title of the sermon is To the Church at Colosse. The first two verses of the first chapter are these:
Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Tonight, we begin at the third verse and preach through the sixth. This morning, the sermon is an introductory address to the sermons that shall be preached in this letter of Paul to the church at Colosse. For us to have any feeling of being at home at all in the epistle, we must have this introductory background.
The Roman Empire was divided into provinces. Some of them were imperial. They were under the crown. They were administered by armies. Any recalcitrant province was placed under the emperor who governed it by an army. Judea was one of the imperial provinces – that is, under Caesar himself – and was administered by a procurator. That is a man personally responsible to the emperor. There were also provinces which were senatorial provinces. They were provinces who lived at peace, and they were administered by the Roman senate.
The richest and most famous of all of the Roman provinces was the province of Asia. Asia Minor was filled with Greek cities – had been for centuries and centuries. Some of the great and noble of the philosophers, of the historians, of the artists, lived over there along those Ionian cities that bordered the Aegean Sea in Asia Minor.
Now, the great province of the Roman Empire, in Asia Minor, was called Asia. From that word, it has come to designate the entire, great continental expanse of modern Asia, but the word first referred to a Roman province that faced the Aegean Sea. The capital of the Roman province of Asia was named Ephesus. It was one of the great cities of the empire: first, Rome; second, Alexandria; third, Antioch – Syrian Antioch; and fourth, Ephesus.
Now, about seventy-five miles – in the province of Asia – down the coast south, there is a river that pours into the sea called the Maeander, and about a hundred miles up the Maeander River, there is another river that pours into it called the Lycus. And in that Lycus Valley, there were three very famous churches. They all three are named here in the Book of Colossians.
First, there was the church at Laodicea [Colossians 4:13-16]. It was a wealthy and populous city on the south side of the Lycus River. Just across the river, on the other side, was another city called Hierapolis – the sacred city, Hierapolis [Colossians 4:13]. It was in full view of Laodicea. They were on either sides of the Lycus River. Then on the south side of the Lycus River, on the same side of Laodicea, about nine or ten miles up, was this smaller city named Colosse [Colossians 1:2].
Now, the churches of the Lycus River, I say, were very, very famous, and the cities were very famous. Though they were far inland, yet they were noted in the days of the Roman empire.
Hierapolis, that’s the Greek word for "sacred city" – the word for sacred, hier; city, polis; Indianapolis, Annapolis – just the Greek word for city, polis. Hierapolis was a health resort; and because of the vapors that came out of the depths of the earth, they had priestesses there like the Apollo Delphian oracle. They called her a pythoness. She would sit on a tripod, and, overcome by the fumes of the vapor, she was supposed to have the spirit and art of divination. Consequently, it became known as a great and sacred city, and people resorted there to know their fortunes. That’s Hierapolis. Epictetus [55-135 CE], the greatest Stoic philosopher and moralist of the heathen world, was a proud citizen of Hierapolis.
On the other side of the river, this church of Laodicea. Seleucus Nicator [Seleucus I Nicator, 358-281 BCE], one of the four great generals of Alexander [Alexander the Great, 356-323 BCE], had a passion for building beyond any prince I have ever read of. His father was named Antiochus – Antioch – and his mother was named Laodicea. All over the eastern part of the Mediterranean, you’ll find Antiochs and Laodiceas.
This Laodicea was a great and wealthy and populous city. John writes a letter to it in the Book of the Revelation [Revelation 3:14-22]. It is the last of the seven churches to whom John addressed his letters – Jesus addressed His words [Revelation 2:1-3:22]. Laodicea was on the road between Ephesus and the Euphrates and became very wealthy. When an earthquake destroyed it, Tacitus [Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 56-117 CE], the Roman historian, says that the people were so affluent they did not call on aid from Rome to rebuild the city, but they built it themselves. Like you’d call on Washington [Washington, D.C.] to help you in a disaster, well, they they didn’t do that. They were so wealthy, they built their city themselves. Cicero [Marcus Tullius Cicero, 107-43 BCE] wrote some of his letters from this famous city of Laodicea.
Now, up the Lycus Valley was this small town of Colosse. It’s the smallest church to which Paul ever addressed a letter. In the long ago, Herodotus [c. 484-425 BCE], Xenophon [430-354 BCE] say it was a great city, but it had fallen due to the rise of Laodicea and Hierapolis; and in Paul’s time, it was a small town. But they had some marvelous people there, one of whom was Philemon who had a slave named Onesimus who ran away, who was converted by Paul in Rome, and to whom Paul sent back the converted runaway slave, Onesimus, with a letter to Philemon who lived in Colosse [Philemon 1:10-19].
Now, Colosse was the – with all the churches of the Lycus Valley – Colosse was the product of evangelists, missionary teachers and leaders who were won to Christ through the effect of Paul’s great ministry in Ephesus. Paul had never been there. He had never seen them. The churches in the Lycus Valley had been won to the Lord by a man named Epaphras. In the second chapter of Colossians, the first [verse], Paul says: "I have for you a great conflict, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh" [from Colossians 2:1]. That is, Paul had never been there. He had never seen these converts. In the seventh verse of the first chapter of Colossians, he says that they learned the gospel "from Epaphras our dear fellow servant, who for you is a faithful minister of Christ" [Colossians 1:7].
Now, it is easy to understand that. Paul was in the great capital city named Ephesus, and he stayed there for three years [Acts 18:11, 18; 19:1, 8-10]. And in the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Acts and the tenth verse, it says: "So that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks" [Acts 19:10]. And in the same nineteenth chapter of Acts, Demetrius, the silversmith – who is raising a riot against Paul at Ephesus [Acts 19:24-34] – he says to those people there: "And not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that there be no gods, which are made with hands" [Acts 19:26].
Now, Paul held a tremendous evangelistic campaign and revival meeting in the city of Ephesus, and from that campaign, from that revival, there poured out converts through all of that Roman province – just like you’re seeing now in New York City. Charles G. Finney [Charles Grandison Finney, 1792-1875] held a revival meeting in the last century in Rochester, New York, and had over 100,000 converts, and yet the city itself had a population of only 50,000.
That’s what happened in Ephesus. Paul preached the Gospel there with such power that the word overflowed throughout the province [Acts 19:1-22]. And a product of that ministry, through this convert Epaphras, was the organization of these churches in the Lycus Valley at Hierapolis, at Laodicea, and at Colosse [Colossians 1:7].
Now, Paul is in Rome, and this man Epaphras has made a journey to Rome because of a great burden on his heart for the churches in the Lycus Valley. In the fourth chapter of the Book of Colossians it says, twelfth verse and thirteenth: "Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ, saluteth you, always laboring fervently" – the Greek is agonizo – "agonizing for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bear him record, that he hath a great zeal for you, and for them that are in Laodicea, and for them in Hierapolis" [Colossians 4:12-13].
What is it that so exercised and so burdened the heart of Epaphras that he made the journey to Rome in order to lay the problem before the apostle Paul? And what was it that so afflicted this little congregation there at Colosse that Paul sat down and wrote this letter in order to help them meet this heretical development in their midst? Well, it is something that is foreign, alien, to us today. When I tell you what it is, you will be amazed that such an aberration should have ever afflicted the philosophical or intellectual worship of men, much less their Christian worship. But it was a thing that swept the Roman Empire in the first Christian centuries and well nigh challenged unto death the preaching of the Gospel.
It was a heresy called the gnostic heresy: the philosophical approach to the worship of God in Gnosticism. Now, I have to tell you what that stuff is, briefly – there are books and books on it – or else you’ll never enter in to what this thing is about. But it has an application today that I hope will be very pertinent to us.
Gnosticism was the superiority and intellectual appreciation and philosophical acumen by which the initiates were saved, but all the rest of the people who were not initiates – the common ones, the dumb ones, the ordinary ones, the hoi polloi – well, they never entered into those mysteries. That’s the reason it was called Gnosticism. The Greek word for knowledge is gnosis. And the Gnostics were "the knowing ones," and all the rest of them didn’t know.
Well, over there in the center of Asia Minor in the old Roman province of Phrygia, a part of which is now, at this time, the Roman province of Asia, Antiochus Epiphanes [Antiochus IV Epiphanes, 215-164 BCE], the tyrant and oppressor of the Jews, had settled from Mesopotamia about two thousand Jewish families. And over there in that country, they were very amenable to not only Jewish ceremonialism but to Oriental mysticism and to Greek philosophy.
Now, a posit, a fundamental tenet, of that intellectual approach was this: that God was good. I hear some religionists today speak of this same thing. God is good, and everything He touches is good, and there’s nothing evil, you know, and on and on and on. God is good. God is good. That’s the first one.
The second great tenet is this: matter is evil. Matter is evil; that is, inherently evil – evil in itself.
So the philosophical problem they had to solve was this: how did the good God create evil matter? The good God cannot touch evil matter, and yet here it is, evil – your body, everything that is matter. Everything is evil, they said, and God is only good and all good.
Well, how do you get the two together? Well, their philosophical, intellectual approach produced this: they did it by a series of emanations, eons, mediators. Went like this: the great, good God up there, high and all-powerful, created an eon – an emanation, a lower angel. And then that emanation created another one, and that eon created another one. And that angel created another one, and that mediator created another one, until finally you got an angel or a mediator or an eon or an emanation down here that’s far enough from God to touch evil matter, to have created evil matter, and yet able and powerful enough to have created it. So they separated between God above and between evil matter below a long series of emanations – of eons, of angels – one creating the other.
Now, when they met Christianity, what they did was they made Jesus one of those emanations. Some of those Gnostics would put Him in the middle. Most of them put Him at the bottom. And that was their solution to all of the problems that they found in this evil world and a good God.
Now, it turned an unusual way ethically. As they met the problems of ethics – why, it took a double turn. One: asceticism, monasticism – a thing that you’ll find in Buddhism; a thing you’ll find in Stoicism; a thing you’ll find in certain kinds of monastic Christianity, people who live behind walls and dress a certain way. It turned in a monastic way. They felt that matter was evil. The body is evil; therefore, it must be afflicted. It must be tormented. It must be mortified. And it turned to asceticism.
The other strange turn, which is opposite, the other turned to antinomianism. "Antinomianism" is a word referring to lawlessness; that is, you’re not bound by any law: antinomianism, anti-law. And that turned to license, of course, to Epicureanism, to Nicolaitanism, to the Ophites – that is, matter was evil but couldn’t touch the soul. So it didn’t matter what you did. You’d slough off this evil body at death, and the soul was perfectly pure and untouched because evil was only in matter and not in the soul.
Now, those are the philosophical aberrations, and I apologize for trying to say such a vast amount in such a little bit of time. I’m afraid you don’t get a good picture of it, but you get enough of it to see what Paul’s going to write about.
Now, there came into that church this gnostic heresy. First of all, this thing of intellectual superiority – and Paul has some things to say about that. For example, in the twenty-eighth verse of the first chapter of Colossians, look how he’ll emphasize, talking about this great gospel of the Son of God: "Whom we preach, warning every man" – not just a few, not just an intellectual caste, not just some superior ones, but every man – "and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" [Colossians 1:28].
Now, look at that. In that one verse, you’ve got that three times. This Jesus "whom we preach," and the Gospel, "warning every man, teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man mature in Christ Jesus" [Colossians 1:28]. Paul says there is no such thing as any man or any group of men having – now, could I say it vernacularly? – having a corner on spiritual truth.
How often do you find certain men set aside? They set themselves aside, and they say they are the ones who alone can interpret the Word of God. They alone are called of God to mediate the wisdom revealed in Christ Jesus – just they – and they are the clergy. They are the priests. They are set aside in sacerdotal intellectualism. They are there apart. And the laity, the common people, are to bow and to kiss and to receive from their hand these revelations of God.
Paul says, "Not so!" There is no such thing as a sacerdotal intellectual caste in the Christian faith, but every man is his own priest [1 Peter 2:5, 9]. And every man is his own intercessor before God [Hebrews 4:16]. And every man can be taught and can know the wisdom of God and can grow into the perfection of Christ Jesus [John 6:37; Acts 4:13]. In other words, there’s not anything that I know or that I study or that I preach that you cannot know, that you cannot study, that you cannot preach. There’s no special gnosis, no special knowledge of mine. There’s not anything that I can understand that you cannot understand.
The only difference in us is this: that while you’re out there toiling, making a living, either selling or buying or going or coming, you have liberated me to sit there in my study, and, with this open Bible, to prepare these messages. But there is no peculiar gnosis in it. There’s no peculiar knowledge in it. There’s no unusual intellectual achievements in it, but the dumbest and the poorest and the most untaught among us can be brought to the saving knowledge and wisdom of Christ as well as the most intellectually able in our midst.
What does false intellectualism do to a people? I’ll tell you what it does. You go with me to those seminaries, mostly in the North and in the East, and let us visit those seminaries and listen to those philosophers as they speculate, as they philosophize, as they enter into all of those things by which they look upon themselves as being purveyors of the higher intellectual culture, and let’s see what they do to the preacher.
Does the preacher, when he gets through that seminary course, does he go out aflame, afire? Does he go out with a heart burning? Does he go out in a great missionary enterprise? Does he go out to take hold, two-fisted, on the problems of the world and move it to God? No! He doesn’t go out at all. He doesn’t even preach. There are not enough men graduated from those seminaries who actually preach even to name or to refer to them! There is something about Gnosticism, false prideful intellectualism. There’s something about cultural, cheap veneer that somehow deadens the heart and ruins the spirit and takes away the minister of Jesus Christ. It did it here at Colosse.
You turn to the last chapter of this book and see what Paul says to the pastor there at Colosse – the seventeenth verse [Colossians 4:17]. In the first chapter of Philemon, you’ll find this boy named Archippus is the pastor of the church at Colosse [Philemon 1:2]. Now, he’s over there in the midst of that intellectual, speculative, reptilian philosophy. And Epaphras is away [Colossians 4:12], and Archippus is there. Now, look what Paul says to Archippus: "And say to Archippus, ‘Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it’" [Colossians 4:17]. "Archippus, that gnosis, that intellectual aberration, has taken you away. You’ve become tepid. You’ve lost your heart. You’ve lost the fervor of your life and your soul."
It’s like a man having malaria, and his body whitens. So this man, Archippus, who’s pastor of the church, falling into intellectualism, into speculative philosophy, into all of those things by which – I listen to these kids after they’ve just come out of school. Oh, such things, such things! There is no such thing as learning God in speculative philosophy.
Paul says here in the second chapter: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, and after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" [Colossians 2:8] – the rudiments of the world. He calls all of this vain, intellectual, speculative philosophy "rudiments" – ABCs. What does Paul mean by that? He means that a man by his intellectual powers and ability and ingeniousness – a man might learn the ABCs of the world. That is, he might see that the earth is round. He might see that a star shines. He might see that a bug moves. He might see that a rock weighs. He might learn those things, but he can never know God. You can never learn God through the rudiments of this world, through speculative philosophy.
You listen to me. Had there been a way for a man intellectually to know God through speculative philosophy, the Greeks would have found Him thousands of years ago. There have never been any group of men like those men who lived in the golden age of Pericles [5-429 BCE]. There have never been historians; there have never been artists; there have never been poets; there have never been rhetoricians; there have never been philosophers; there have never been teachers like those in the ancient Greek world, and yet they never found God.
The only way that a man finds God is through the revelation in Jesus Christ [Colossians 2:2-3]. It comes through the self-disclosure of God Himself [John 6:44]. And the great wisdom which Paul says here is open to every man – the great and true knowledge, the saving gnosis – is in Christ Jesus [Colossians 2:9-10]. And the humblest among us can sit at the feet of Jesus [Luke 10:, 32] and learn the highest knowledge in God’s heaven and upon God’s earth [1 Corinthians 1:26-31].
I’m not saying we ought not to study, we ought not to send our children to school, and we ought not to read what men say. I am just avowing that the pride of heart and the intellectual superiority that is assumed by these karma rats who are so filled with undigested information that they can’t fly – I am just saying that we’re not to sit at their feet and seek to learn about God. That’s all.
These ministerial dilettante who are out with just so much – men who lack deep convictions, never build missions. They never win the lost. They never warm the cold heart. They never seize upon the need of this world. They’re too busy philosophizing, speculating, living in an aura up there somewhere beyond the clouds. If Christianity is anything in this earth, it’s down here where we are. It’s down here where we live. It’s where your heart is and soul is. It’s the message of the Son of God for you.
Well, we have got the first syllable. It’s very difficult for me to take these services and crowd into them what ought to be said. May I just briefly now, just summarizing, say one or two other things about this thing at Colosse?
You know, I said that they posited a great number of mediators between us and God. Isn’t it a tragedy? Isn’t it a tragedy that the church at Rome didn’t read this epistle?
"There is one mediator between man and God, the man Christ Jesus" [from 1 Timothy 2:5]. That’s what Paul said about that. There is one. There is only one. You look here as Paul will say this Christ – this Christ, "It pleased the Father" – in the first chapter and the nineteenth verse and following – "It pleased the Father that in Him should all fulness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of His cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself; by Him . . . " – not by her or it, but "by Him, I say . . ." [from Colossians 1:19-20]
See how Paul emphasized the thing? Look at it: "It pleased the Father that in Him should all fulness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of His cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself; by Him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven." There is one mediator between God and man – one. It’s not a virgin. It’s not a she. It’s not a saint. It’s not a priest. It’s not a hierarchy. It is a Him, the Lord Jesus Christ. "Having made peace through the blood of His cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself; by Him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven" [from Colossians 1:20].
All of these mediators by which ye seek to go to God, bowing before this one, and lighting candles before that one, pleading before this one, begging for that one to intercede for you – us poor souls; oh, there is one intercessor and one mediator between man and God, Paul says, the man, Christ Jesus.
Now, this other thing – just by summary, and that’s all. This thing of asceticism and this thing of license, antinomianism; now, look what he’ll say about asceticism. There in the second chapter and the twenty-first and twenty-second verses. There he says you have some: "(Touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and the doctrines of men?" [Colossians 2:21-22]. Don’t you eat this. Don’t you touch that. Don’t you do this – living in all of those rudiments and traditions of asceticism.
All right. Now, the other, this thing of ceremonial mandates and commandments. Look at the sixteenth verse:
Let no man therefore judge you in meat –
what you eat or what you don’t drink –
or in drink –
only thing is we wouldn’t want people to indulge in alcohol [Ephesians 5:18], but that’s just because of the body’s health and other people around you, not because inherent in the thing itself it would be an evil –
or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days" –
you’re not to keep a Sabbath day. Saturday, the Sabbath day, you are not to keep it –
which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ."
All of those ceremonies, all of the rituals, all of the holy days, and all of those Sabbaths were great types looking forward to the Lord Jesus. Now the substance has come, we don’t observe them anymore. We don’t observe a Sabbath anymore. We don’t teach Saturday anymore. We have the first day of the week, which is a voluntary [day] in which we worship the Lord Jesus Christ.
I must conclude. Look what he says in the fourth chapter here about his letters, the sixteenth verse: "And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye likewise read the epistle from Laodicea" [Colossians 4:16]. Paul wrote an epistle to the Laodiceans just like Jesus did in the seven churches of Asia [Revelation 3:14-22].
Well, where’s that letter that Paul wrote to the Laodiceans? That letter is your letter to the Ephesians. The Ephesian letter is a circular letter, and in those old manuscripts like the Vaticanus [Codex Vaticanus] and the Sinaiticus [Codex Sinaiticus], why, it is vacant there where it says, "to Ephesus." Paul wrote the letter as a general letter and a general encyclical, a general epistle, and that is the letter that went to the Laodiceans. So he says, "I command you that you read this letter that I am writing to the church and that you read the church letter of the Laodiceans" [from Colossians 4:16].
It’s the same kind of a thing as Paul said here in First Thessalonians, the fifth chapter and the twenty-seventh verse: "I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren" [1 Thessalonians 5:27]. By that he means that the words of the apostle are words of divine authority to the churches then, to the churches thence, to the churches now, and to the churches forevermore. Our sufficient manual of faith and of practice and of doctrine is to be found in the Book that I hold in my hand.
"I commend you," says Paul, "I commend you that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren" [from 1 Thessalonians 5:27]. That’s one reason, among others, why I like for us to read the thing out loud like they read it out loud. When the church assembled themselves together, what they did was they read these great epistles of the apostles to the congregation that they might know the truth of the doctrine and the order and the worship of Almighty God; and that’s what we’re doing today.
Well, while we sing our song, while we sing our song, coming into this aisle and down here to the front to give your heart in faith to Christ or to put your life into the fellowship of the church – in this balcony around, on this lower floor, while we sing the song, while we make the appeal, you come and stand by me. "Here, pastor, I give you my hand. I have given my heart in faith and in trust to Jesus," or, "Pastor, I give you my hand. We’ve been saved and baptized, and we’re coming into the church." As God shall open the door and lead the way, will you come while we stand and while we sing?