False teaching and doctrine are rooted in deception. The Apostle Paul writes or alludes to this repeatedly (Colossians 2:4, 5,8, 17, 23). Those who espouse untruths are not always aware of the dishonesty involved and have been led astray by others under the same bewitchment, usually with good intentions. Our spiritual journey must be a pursuit of truth and the recognition that the Scriptures are the final authority. Jesus clearly teaches, “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him— the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:48).
Satan finds his power in lies, ruse, and duplicity.
From the very beginning, the serpent asked, “Has God indeed said?” Jesus plainly says, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).
The Apostle Paul also warns of the “traditions of men” competing in the arena of truth. Traditions are not intrinsically wrong and can be very helpful. However, when they become esteemed and viewed as equally authoritative as God’s Word then we see critical problems arise theologically and practically. This was one of the primary problems of the Pharisees. The culture of Judaism had come to revere the teachings of rabbis and elders which were stringent and even oppressive. Jesus was often clarifying and reminding the people of what was really written in the Torah and the Prophets. Jesus would frequently remark, “Have ye not read?”
The tradition and conventions of the rabbis like hand washing, sabbath restrictions, extensive tithing, fasting, public displays of piety were additional requirements not specified by the law but became revered by the people as such. Jesus warned, “And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9).
Men’s traditions also become hazardous when they are contradictory to Biblical teaching. The New Testament was preserved to facilitate the succession and handing down of the words of Jesus and His chosen Apostles. It is within this scope that we find salvation (Hebrews 2:3). Jesus commanded, “teaching them to observe whatsoever things I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). We are so very blessed to have the instructions of our Lord to his earliest disciples. We must avoid contradictory teachings and “contend earnestly for the faith that once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3).
The Apostle also warns against false teaching that is described as “basic principles of the world” (Colossians 2:8, 20). It is tempting to be moved by the immediate and gratify the flesh by concupiscence or being ruled by our emotions. Christians are called to an eternal and heavenly perspective rather than one concerned merely with the here and now.
Worldliness is categorized as the “love of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:15). The current customs and dominant culture can infiltrate the hearts and minds of Christians. We must be watchful and strive to aspire to a life of heavenly origin and perspective.
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.
Therefore, put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them.
But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3:1-11).
The Apostle Paul is opposing and responding to the false teaching at the Colossae church. He describes and reveals characteristics, general to all erroneous types of doctrines. We noted earlier, the Colossae heresy involved a mixture of Jewish law, angelic worship, and strict asceticism, which is only known by one side of the conversation given by the apostle in the epistle (Colossians 2:16,17, 23).
The first characteristic is “persuasive words” (Colossians 2:4). Language is how we think. We use language or symbols to represent concepts, mental images, and abstractions. We can use words to manipulate people and misguide them. False teachers may employ specialized esoteric language or adapt language to sound intelligent or use rhetorical skills to emotionally persuade an audience.
Rhetoric was an ancient oratory and written skill very well-known and studied. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." Aristotle dissected further that the practitioner must have personal credibility or ethos, the audience must be moved with emotion or pathos, and lastly, argumentation and logical formulas are utilized as logos (Aristotle, Rhetoric).
There is an instance when an orator Tertullus is hired to present a compelling case against the Apostle Paul. “Now after five days Ananias the high priest came down with the elders and a certain orator named Tertullus. These gave evidence to the governor against Paul” (Acts 24:1).
Learning the art of persuasion is not wrong in and of itself. It is when the truth is diminished and not pursued by persuasion that it becomes dangerous and duplicitous. False teachers can employ powerful techniques of influence which can coax and impact beliefs.
The Apostle Paul also warns that they could be cheated “through philosophy” (Colossians 2:8). The discipline of philosophy or human reason has been a building block to modern science and technology. The philosopher Thales of Miletus accurately predicted a solar eclipse in 585 B.C. The world has been radically changed by such ancient thinkers as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Pythagoras, and Plotinus to modern names like Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.
The Church Father Tertullian was very leery and suspicious of philosophy. The oft quoted passage,
What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? What have heretics to do with Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic Christianity! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after receiving the gospel! When we believe, we desire no further belief. For this is our first article of faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides. (Holmes 2023)
Philosophy and the exercise of human reason through deduction and induction has been revolutionary in modern times. We know that the Apostle Paul utilized reason in His preaching. The book of Acts records numerous occasions of Paul appealing to rationality and argumentation (Acts 9:22, 17: 2-4, 19:8-10, 26:22-26). He also appealed to the poets of Athens in response to the stoics and epicureans (Acts 17: 22-34).
Human reason is ultimately from God and extremely helpful but has also been vitiated by the effects of our sin and recalcitrance. So, we must always depend on God’s word as the final authority because God’s wisdom transcends our finite and creaturely minds. The Scriptures reveal poignantly,
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (I Corinthians 1: 18-25).
The cross of Jesus is transcendent to human reason and science. God has chosen Christ’s vicarious and atoning death as His greatest self-disclosure and meaning for life. Our minds can only tremble at the thought of such paradoxes as the righteous God-man dying as a criminal in submission to the holy will of God. Or the juxtaposition of unconditional love and eternal justice found in the crucifixion. We also find in Christ, the intersection of God’s eternal and sovereign determination with humanity’s free will and choice. All these spiritual truths and many more exceed math formulas, scientific experimentation, or a modus ponens argument.
We have heard the names of notable saints’ thunder down through the ages with Bible stories, history books and family genealogies. Enoch: who walked with God; Abraham: the father of faith and friend of God; Noah: the builder of the ark; Moses: the emancipator; David: the anointed King of Israel; Jonah and the big fish; Daniel in the lion’s den; John: the beloved Apostle; Peter: the transformed fisherman; and the apostle Paul: missionary to the world.
But what about Epaphras?
Chances are, you haven’t heard much about the preacher from Colossae. There are only a few verses about him in Scripture, but they do reveal a great deal about this amazing first century Christian minister. The Apostle Paul writes that Epaphras is “one of you.” He was a resident of the city of Colossae located in Asia Minor or modern Turkey. The city was built in the shadow of Mount Cadmus which towered over 8,000 feet. The region was also known for the cool water from the Lycus River which flowed with valuable trade too. It doesn’t appear that Paul had ever visited the city when the letter was written because many “have not seen my face in the flesh” (2:1). Other notable residents were Philemon and Onesimus (Colossians 4: 9; Philemon 12).
Epaphras the Evangelist
The Apostle Paul writes, “you heard and knew the grace of God in truth; as you also learned from Epaphras” (Colossians 1:7,8). The preacher Epaphras taught the Colossae church the “grace of God in truth.” He had evangelized and planted the church which was now beginning to flirt with false teaching and apostacy. Epaphras had traveled many miles to influential Paul for help in remedying through an epistle or letter which bears apostolic authority, “Paul, an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the will of God” (1:1). Epaphras also sends greetings by Paul through the letter (4:12).
Epaphras showed great compassion by sharing the saving message of Christ to his fellow citizens and neighbors at Colossae first. His notable example shows that we should share the Gospel to those closest to us. We find the same quality in disciples like Andrew, who found his brother Simon Peter. Or, remember Cornelius, who brought the preaching of the Gospel to his whole household.
There is a mission field right next door or even in our own homes.
Epaphras the Servant
The Apostle continues describing Epaphras as “our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf” (1: 7). One of the most consistent teachings of Christ and the New Testament is importance of the servant mentality and heart. Our Lord was found on the night of His betrayal with a towel and basin washing the feet of His disciples, as a lowly servant. He commanded, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). When the disciples argued about greatness, Jesus clarified, “But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).
Epaphras' concern was for others. The Bible says that he was acting “on your behalf.” He was not motivated by selfishness, position, or ego but with the heart of a servant. Have your relationships ever suffered or faltered because your raison d'etre was only focused on your own best interest and not others? The Apostle Paul warned of such attitudes, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
Epaphras the Zealous
Paul continued his profile on Epaphras by adding, “always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has a great zeal for you, and those who are in Laodicea, and those in Hierapolis” (4:12,13). In a world of cynicism and indifference, we should strive to be people of action and even urgency.
The Apostle John writes about another church in the same region as Colossae named Laodicea. The Scriptures declare, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3: 15-17).
Epaphras was a man of passion and action. His notable example encourages us to remember the church's work for the lost and vulnerable is transformative and vitally important.
Epaphras the Faithful
The Bible says that Epaphras was “faithful” and Paul further states that he was a “fellow prisoner” (Philemon 1:23). He was a man of profound commitment to Christ and the church. The false teaching that had beset the Colossae brethren had troubled him so much that he turned to the Apostle Paul for needed help. They were losing sight of the preeminence of Christ and the Gospel. Now, the church was being beckoned by the truth from the greatest missionary and apostle.
Epaphras may not be popular or as other well-known as other Biblical saints, but we should remember his exemple of evangelism, servitude, zeal, and faithfulness to the Lord. He desired the truth to be known and false teaching to be corrected.
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving.”
The roots of a tree are a great metaphor for fundamental and essential beliefs that ground Christianity. The elaborate system of roots hidden beneath the earth are four to seven times greater than the surface area of the crown of a tree. Another study found a ratio of 38 to 1 of root composition compared to the trunk of a tree (Shea 2023).
These natural facts illustrate the importance of being “rooted.” Systems of roots offer indispensable structure for the tree to stand. The roots also gather the sustenance of water and nutrients to feed the living organism. They also give the tree strength during strong storms and high winds. Our lives must run deep in faith beyond the shallow earth to flourish and withstand adversity.
We ponder, is there anything in this world absolute or immutable? We feel the cultural ground moving beneath us and seismic shifts happening everywhere. Violence and autocracy are growing across the globe, immorality celebrated, and churches leaving Biblical teaching in favor of political correctness and human approbation. Yet, the Bible has not changed and still offers the truth of God’s character, morality, and salvation.
The Apostle Paul confronts false teaching in the church of Colossae. The heresy was a mixture of Jewish law, angelic worship, and strict asceticism. The saints had lost sight of the lordship of Christ by following teachings that did not conform to the “apostles’ doctrine” and personality of Christ. Hear Paul’s words of warning, “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2: 8).
The Hebrew writer had also encountered believers in need of the first principles of Christian doctrine because of rampant deception, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are full age” (Hebrews 5:12-14a).
Renowned scholar J. B. Lightfoot observed of the epistle to the Colossians, “The doctrine of the person of Christ is here stated with greater precision and fulness than in any other of St. Paul’s epistles” (Wuest 1969). Paul powerfully writes, “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him” (Colossians 1:16).
Why does the Apostle so eloquently articulate the deity and authority of Christ with such command and emphasis? It is because Christ’s sovereignty and church doctrine are inextricably linked together by His divine authority.
We are commanded, “so walk in Him.” Jesus has left us not only words but a vivid example of deeds to follow (I Peter 2:21; John 13: 13-16). Also, we see the relational character of discipleship. Our daily lives or “walk” should recognize the very presence of the Lord. The Apostle Paul seeks to solidify the church’s beliefs by reminding them of the fundamental truths, “rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught.”
We will embark on a study of the letter to the Colossians while examining the foundational or rooted principles of Biblical doctrine and descriptions of false teaching. It is with hope and prayer that we will find those immutable and eternal truths of God that we can build our lives on. Jesus reminded us that His teachings can withstand the “rain, floods, and wind” because “everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24).
When we forsake the teachings of Christ and His apostles, we settle for the shifting sand of men’s speculation, skepticism, and despair.