The New Testament book of Colossians appears to have been written in response to a heretical teaching that was making inroads among the members of the church in the city of Colossae. However, its difficult to know the precise nature of the error that Paul the Apostle sought to address within this letter. In one sense, we much like a person who is listening to one side of a phone conversation as we read this epistle- we have to make some inferences based on the portion of the conversation we can hear.
Various commentators have offered their views on the nature of the “Colossian Heresy” based on the information given to us within this epistle…
“Several years after the Colossian church was founded, a dangerous heresy arose to threaten it—one not identified with any particular historical system. It contained elements of what later became known as Gnosticism: that God is good, but matter is evil, that Jesus Christ was merely one of a series of emanations descending from God and being less than God (a belief that led them to deny His true humanity), and that a secret, higher knowledge above Scripture was necessary for enlightenment and salvation.” (1)
“Throughout this letter Paul combats a heresy similar to Gnosticism (see the notes on Col_1:9-14; Col_1:15-23; Col_2:4 ff). Gnostics believed that it took special knowledge to be accepted by God; for them, even for those who claimed to be Christians, Christ alone was not the way of salvation (Col_1:20)… Gnostics valued the accumulation of knowledge, but Paul pointed out that knowledge in itself is empty. To be worth anything, it must lead to a changed life and right living.” (2)
“In this letter, Paul is combating a heresy that scholars have found very difficult to identify… Apparently, this heresy did not categorically deny that the work of Jesus Christ is necessary for the sinner’s salvation. It did, however, deny the sufficiency of that work for salvation. The Colossians were being told that by means of observing a cycle of feasts and festivals (2:16), and particularly through an ascetic lifestyle of abstention from food and drink (2:21–23), they could usher themselves into ecstatic, visionary states in the present (2:18) and, with Christ’s help, make it to heaven one day.” (3)
“The impact of the heretical teaching must have been profound, since one of the three churches mentioned in the letter (4:13), Laodicea, is singled out for criticism in the Book of Revelation many years later (Rev. 3:14ff.). Laodicea is charged with being wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. Ephesus fares somewhat better but has left its first love and needs to repent (Rev. 2:1ff.).” (4)
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(2) Life Application Study Bible, Colossians 1:4-5 Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved. Life Application® is a registered trademark of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
(3) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2118). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
(4) McRay, J. (1995). Colossians. In Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Vol. 3, p. 1050). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.