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We cannot understand an email or text message unless we know its background, context, and purpose. Similarly, we cannot understand Paul’s letter to the Colossians unless we grasp its background, context, and purpose.

Behind Paul’s letter to the Colossians was his concern that false teaching was undermining the faith and practice of the Colossian believers. These false teachers were called Gnostics (“knowers” or “know-it-alls”) because they believed that the way to salvation was a special, extra knowledge that elevated spiritual elites from the material world to the divine world.

It's not surprising, then, that the three key themes of Colossians are all related to the three primary teachings of the Gnostics.

1. Christ is supreme.

The Gnostics taught that there was a complex hierarchy of divine spirit-beings and that the lowest one created the material world. Anything physical, therefore, was of little value.

Paul establishes Christ’s supreme position and authority over all by identifying Him as the perfect image of God, with the first position over all creation because He created all things, including the material world and the spirit world (Col. 1:15–16). He didn’t just create the physical world and walk away from it, but He holds it all together too, sustaining and managing the whole universe (Col. 1:17). He also has the first position of supremacy and authority over the church because in His incarnation, He united the fullness of God with a full bodily humanity, then suffered, died, and rose again in that body to reconcile sinners to God (Col. 1:18–20).

Paul was saying to the Colossians: “Don’t listen to the Gnostics. The supreme deity is Christ, not some other spirit-being. The physical world was created not by the lowest spirit-being, but by this supreme Christ. This supreme Christ entered the physical world in a physical body. This supreme Christ did all this to reconcile the physical world to God. Do you see how valuable the physical is to God? Don’t despise the body or the material world, but value and honor it as God’s creation that He wants to save.”

2. Christ is sufficient.

The Gnostics taught that salvation came by accessing a special secret knowledge (called gnosis), which only a select few could reach through rare insights and mystical experiences (Col. 2:1–3). They believed they could save themselves.

Paul, therefore, pointed the Colossians to faith in Christ alone as the only source of rich and saving wisdom. He warned them against any teaching that would turn them away from Christ’s sufficiency to any worldly philosophy, tradition, or practice (Col. 2:4–9). In Christ is fullness and, therefore, Christians are full in Him (Col. 2:10). Nothing else is required for salvation or sanctification but faith in Christ crucified (Col. 2:11–15). No additional knowledge, practice, experience, or angel can add anything to Christ. He is complete, and we are complete in Him (Col. 2:16–23).

Paul was saying to the Colossians: “If you have Christ, you have enough. Anything you add to Him will only take away from Him. Rest complete in the complete Christ.”

3. Christ is our identity

Because the material world was despised by the Gnostics, so were ethics in this world. Salvation was all about escaping this physical world and entering the spirit world. Our physical actions in the physical world did not matter to them.

In opposition to this, Paul taught that because Christians have been buried with Christ and raised with Christ, they have a new identity in this world (Col. 3:1–4). With that new identify comes a new lifestyle, a new approach to this world and our lives in it. The old identity of worldly ways is to be put off and the new Christ-identity put on (3:5–17). The general outlines of that identity are then fleshed out with very specific instructions to wives, husbands, children, employees, and employers (Col. 3:18–4:6).

Paul’s exhortation to the Colossian Christians could be summarized as follows: “Don’t be led astray by the Gnostics’ exclusive focus on the spiritual world. The supremacy of Christ over the material world means that you must live under his lordship in your material bodies in this material world. And the sufficiency of Christ means you have a complete and satisfying new identity in Him that is to be evidenced in your relationships in this world.”

How then can we live under the supreme lordship of Christ, find completeness in the complete Christ, and express our new identity in Christ with a new lifestyle for Christ? Look at Paul’s first and last words to the Colossians: “Grace to you” (Col. 1:2; 4:18).

This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.