“Christ + Nothing = Everything”
Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae to fortify them against false teaching. Since Paul doesn’t come right out and state it, the exact nature of the heresy is difficult to determine. Colossae was never excavated so there is no archaeological evidence available to say what kind of local cults and religions may have been present. But examining his refutation of the heresy gives us several clues.
Depreciation of Christ — Early on in the letter, Paul emphasizes the supremacy of Christ with a beautiful poem (1:15-19). Evidently, there were some who thought of Christ merely as a beginning to their spirituality. To go on to maturity, some taught the need to follow certain rules and practices that go beyond what Jesus taught. Perhaps they thought of Christ as a created being less than God. Paul insists that Christ is “the image of God” and the agent of creation (1:15-16). Every created thing owes its existence to him, even the angelic beings, which some in Colossae evidently worshiped (2:18). Paul says that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus (1:19; 2:9), that Christ is supreme over all, and that there is no way of ever going beyond him to a higher spirituality. Any “philosophy,” therefore, that depreciates Jesus is “empty” (2:8).
Paganism — Paul also refers to “wisdom,” “knowledge,” (2:3) and “asceticism” (2:23) which may have had Greek roots. He makes a curious reference to the “elemental spirits of the world” (2:8, 20). The “elements” were the ABC’s of a subject. For example, letters are the elements of which words are composed. The “elements” came to mean the ‘stuff’ of which the universe is composed (2 Pet. 3:10, 12). But Paul also uses this phrase to refer to the basic teaching that brought us to faith in Christ found in the Law of Moses (Gal. 4:3, 9; also Heb. 6:1). Whatever this “elemental” teaching was, Paul assures the Colossians it was inferior to faith in Christ.
Judaism — Paul perhaps makes reference to Judaism as well when he writes of “human tradition” (2:8, 22) and food regulations (2:16, 21). The concepts of “circumcision” (2:11; 3:11) and the observance of certain festivals (2:16) are certainly Jewish. There were some Jews during this time who tried to persuade pagan Christians that their position was incomplete (Acts 15:5), a problem Paul labored against his entire ministry. Paul assures the Colossians that they have already been spiritually “circumcised” (2:11) and set free from the claims of Mosaic Law (2:16, 18, 20). If there was a Jewish influence in Colossae, Paul portrays Judaism as just as inferior to Christianity as paganism. Judaism in the Christian age is just another “philosophy” (2:8) and “human tradition” (2:8, 22). To follow the Old Law would be the same for these Gentiles as going back to paganism. Paul says it’s like clinging to the “shadow” when the “substance” (the one casting the shadow) has arrived (2:17).
Syncretism — What may have been going on in Colossae was a kind of syncretism: a blending of various religious ideas, practices, and philosophies. This was popular in the ancient world and enticing to newer, immature converts as it brought the ‘best of both worlds’ into the religious system. This “the-more-the-merrier” approach is still popular today in many so-called Christian traditions. But we don’t develop a religious system and try to fit Christ into it, nor do we use Christ as a mere basis and add to it. Paul’s argument is that Christ is the “head” that ties everything together. To be connected to God, one must be “holding fast to the head” (2:19).
The good news was that the Colossian church had not bought into these lies (1:3-5; 2:5; 3:7). Paul was writing, therefore, only to further ground them in the truth and protect them from error. We might sum up the thrust of the letter like this: Christ + nothing = everything. Paul's letter to the Colossians helps us properly calibrate our faith by regarding Jesus as supreme over all. We have nothing to gain and everything to lose by believing otherwise.