We could spend much more time discussing Gnosticism or other philosophies that sought to degrade the notion of an incarnation. What is more important, however, is to recognize their presence in the church, and to consider how people might have used them as a tool of rebellion.
In Colossae, it appears Gnosticism was only one part of a complex heresy, which targeted the sufficiency of the cross to save. The Gnostic portion of the error is likely reflected in Paul’s reference to angels when he writes, “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize.” (Colossians 2:18) Since, in Gnostic thinking, it was impossible for God to have created the earth, a hierarchy of angels was developed as intermediaries.
Closely tied to this system was the belief its truths could only be understood and applied by those with secret knowledge or “gnosis.” This illustrates another characteristic of the Colossian problem, which was a false sense of intellectual and spiritual superiority. Paul describes this mentality in his section on angel worshippers: “Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.” (Colossians 2:18)
It appears there were Jewish legalists in the Colossian church who believed true righteousness was only possible if followers of Christ followed Old Testament practices under the Law. While there was nothing inherently sinful in following these practices in the church, the scriptures remind us they were made obsolete by the cross. This important point is addressed in the book of Colossians when Paul writes, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossian 2:16-17)
Finally, there was an ascetic element at work in Colossae. As with Old Testament regulations, it is not necessarily sinful to live an ascetic life of self-abasement, unless one has convinced himself his lifestyle is attaining a higher level of righteousness. For example, the biblical practice of fasting requires a denial of self, and can help us focus on the Lord and His will for our lives, but it won’t do anything to cover our sins. Only the blood of Jesus can save. This misunderstanding is the likely cause for Paul’s rejection of the rules “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (Colossians 2:21).
Volumes have been written on the “Colossian Heresy” and I have only provided a basic framework here for the purpose of making my point: attacks on the incarnation of Jesus are often more of a tool for personal rebellion as they are a sincere theological pursuit. If I dismiss God as my Creator and adopt a dualistic view of life, then I can also justify sin in the flesh while claiming righteousness in the spirit. If I can somehow convince by spiritual brothers and sisters they need more than the cross for salvation, then I can bully them into obeying me instead of the Lord. And if I can claim superiority through secret knowledge or self-abasement, I can take the attention off of the love that led Jesus to the cross and make myself out to be somewhat of a savior. All of these attempts lead one to think Jesus’ death on the cross is inadequate, and in different ways they reject God’s plan to come in the flesh and die for the sins of the world.