As you may know, on Sunday mornings we are working our way through Paul’s letter to the church in the city of Colossae, so do take a Bible in your hands and turn there with me to Colossians chapter 2; page 984 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Colossians chapter 2. Do let me direct your attention to verses 8 through 10. One of the things you’ll notice immediately if you cast your eye over these three verses is that Paul is setting up a contrast. On the one hand, there’s what he calls the philosophy of certain teachers who have been introducing their message into the Colossian church, their philosophy. And that’s in contrast to Paul’s message focused on the person and the work of Jesus Christ. And these three verses are really designed to show us two alternatives. There’s the philosophy of the teachers and there’s the Christian Gospel. For Paul, you see, the Colossians were at a fork in the road, at a junction, and the question is, “Which path will they follow?”
I wonder if you would agree with me that we are not at all, despite our sophistication technologically, we are not at all a rationalistic society. We remain profoundly inescapably spiritual. Last year, a Pew Research poll found just over a quarter of adults in America, 27%, said they were spiritual but not religious. A newspaper article interviewed people who fit the category, "spiritual but non-religious," and let me read a few quotes of how that worked out for people; what they understood that to mean, to be "spiritual but not religious." One person explained that, "Living in the city, I fill my apartment with plants and herbs and green life. I cleanse with Dead Sea salt baths and other herbal healing baths. I love nature and herbs. They are the magic healers of the earth and connect us to the spiritual." Another person said, "The practices I consider spiritual are things I do to care for myself in a deep way; to calm myself when I am distressed, to create meaning out of the experiences of my life." Although the interviewee reported to being not at all sure whether she believes in a higher power, nevertheless she kept an altar in her home full of objects symbolically significant to her, and sometimes she performs rituals in which she calls on "deities or deity archetypes." And then she adds, "But I do not often believe that there is a divine order to things. Practices like these can be a way to create beauty out of the chaos I feel I am surrounded by."
What was fascinating was to discover that almost every one of the interviewees was raised in a Christian church of some form or another. Here’s my point. The fork in the road confronting the Colossians, the message of these new teachers or the message of Paul about Jesus, is the same fork in the road that confronts us, precisely. Will it be the spirituality option or will it be the Biblical Gospel? We are all at a fork in the road. Which fork will you choose? That’s the purpose of verses 8 through 10 - to help us make the right choice; to understand what lies down each of these two paths. And we’re going to examine both of them in turn in just a few moments. Before we do that, we’ll read the passage, and before we do that, let’s ask for God to help us. Let’s pray.
O Lord, now would You send us the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit to draw us back to Christ, that in His light, we may see light. For we ask it in His name, amen.
Colossians 2 at verse 8. This is the inerrant Word of Almighty God:
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world and not according to Christ.
For in him the whole fullness of the Deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in Him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
Philosophy of the Rival Teachers
So there are two options before the Colossians - the philosophy of the rival teachers and the message about Jesus Paul preached. We’ll call them option “A” and option “B.” There are two doors. There is door “A” and door “B.” And all we’re going to do is open each door and see what’s behind them. Okay? What’s behind door number one first, door “A.” Look at verse 8. We’ve already said that Paul calls this new message that the Colossians were hearing, he calls it a “philosophy.” Now don’t misunderstand. We typically understand the word, “philosophy,” to have reference to some sort of more abstract, intellectual pursuit; perhaps a system of logic or metaphysics related to some ivory tower scholar. Something like that is what we think of when we think of “philosophy.” But for Paul, the terms is a little broader than that. It can certainly mean the teachings of Plato and Aristotle to be sure, but it also extended to cover these strange mystery cults that were proliferating in the ancient world and in towns like Colossae where there were secrets into which you were initiated and magic rituals. These were also philosophies.
That’s important to see because when Paul is saying you know this teaching is “philosophy,” he’s using it in a negative way but he’s not really saying that philosophy is out of bounds for Christians, that all forms of philosophy are invalid objects of scrutiny or study. That’s not his point. Rather, notice what he says about this philosophy. He calls it “empty deceit.” Do you see that in verse 8? It is philosophy and empty deceit. That’s the message. When you listen to the explanation of the spirituality of those quoted in the newspaper article that I read to you earlier, like the woman who built an altar at which she invokes deities, even though she says she doesn’t usually believe in a divine order to things, when you read that, listen to that, doesn’t it just ring hollow to you? There’s something awfully forlorn about it. Tragic. She is making a desperate attempt to fill a void that she feels, for sure; there’s a longing for spiritual connection. But the spirituality to which she has turned to meet that need and plug the gap, quite frankly has been invented out of thin air. Hasn’t it? It’s a superficial, homespun, amalgam of whatever makes her feel good so that in the end we are left with a sense that all the spiritual practices that she’s engaged in, all they’re really doing is providing a distraction, a stopgap substitute for the real thing. It’s an empty deception, Paul says; then and now.
And notice what he says all of that is based upon. Look at the text again. Verse 8 - he says it's based on two things this philosophy, this empty deceit is based on two things. First, he says it is "according to human tradition," and then secondly he says, behind that, it's "according to the elemental spirits of the world."
Let’s deal with the first of them - tradition. Tradition was important both to Jewish and to Greek religious life. It was the body of teaching and practice passed down from the fathers or passed down from ancient times by the great teachers. And probably these Colossians were arguing or suggesting that their message is really the ancient truth long hidden that they’ve now discovered and are commending to them. “We’ve rediscovered the secret keys to spiritual fullness.” Paul says, “You know, in reality, however venerable with age a tradition might be, these philosophies, these ideas, this spirituality people are pursuing is ultimately sourced in the best guesses and mere inventions of men.” It is human tradition. That is as deep as its spiritual authority really goes. Listen, the Christian claim isn’t like that. The Christian claim is not that our faith rests on the best religious wisdom available to ancient peoples at the time, however insightful that wisdom may be. Our claim, rather, is that the Bible is the very Word of God. It’s not the product of mere human tradition. It is not the record of our quest for transcendence. It is, rather, the record of the transcendent God stooping down to meet us and speak to us and reveal Himself to us, climatically of course, in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. The authority of our convictions rests here in this book entirely, not in mere human tradition.
So if you’re a Christian and you’re having a conversation with someone who rejects the Christian Gospel, one helpful way to approach the discussion is to ask the authority question. As they say, “I don’t agree with that. My spirituality is different and it looks like this.” And you say, “Okay, that’s fascinating, but where do you get that from? On what basis have you built this approach to seeking spiritual answers? Why should I, or anyone else for that matter, believe a word that you are saying? What’s the authority?” Paul says, you know, when you begin to probe and pick at it a little bit, however attractive their philosophy, their spirituality may at first appear, it’s exposed for a camera, it’s a mirage; it’s purely human tradition. There’s nothing else. That’s not to say that there’s no spiritual realities involved, however. He’s not suggesting for a moment that there’s nothing real spiritually speaking going on in the Colossian teachers’ message. Neither would Paul suggest for a moment, and we ought not to conclude that there’s no spiritual reality in all the many and varied forms of spirituality floating around in our particular cultural moment either.
Elemental Spirits of the World
Paul says, "No, actually, this philosophy is according to human tradition, but behind human tradition, this mere human tradition, stands something altogether more sinister." He says it is "according to the elemental spirits of the world." That vocabulary is used elsewhere in the New Testament and he's really speaking about demonic power, spiritual wickedness. The Colossian teachers possibly were invoking supernatural beings. They may have thought that there was a whole chain, an ascending ladder if you like, of emanations from the divine and you can invoke them by ritual and by initiation into mysteries, and so ascend that ladder into spiritual fullness. That may well have been something like what they were teaching in those days. But Paul is actually saying, "You know, however, they dress it up, don't for a moment conclude that this is just empty rhetoric. No, there's something spiritual and real going on here, but it's not at all good. There's spiritual wickedness." He's talking about demonic power.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells the story of a woman who had been a spiritist, a medium conducting seances and so on, living in Wales in the 30s when Lloyd-Jones was still ministering in south Wales. And one Sunday evening she was unable to get to her regular meeting, her spiritess meeting. And she saw people heading to the chapel where Lloyd-Jones was preaching and she decided she would go along. And when she was there, she was marvelously converted to faith in Jesus Christ. And some time later, Lloyd-Jones asked her what she thought that first night at the chapel on a Sunday evening. And what she said in reply I think gets at Paul’s point exactly. She said this. Listen. “The moment I entered your chapel and sat down on a seat amongst the people I was conscious of a power. I was conscious of the same sort of power I was accustomed to in our spiritest meetings but there was one big difference. I had a feeling that the power in your chapel was a clean power.” It was a clean power.
It’s not that her spirituality had no power, no connection to supernatural realities. That’s not it. No, no, it was rather that she had been deceived. And when at last she was confronted with the power of the Holy Spirit speaking in the Gospel, in the preaching of the Word of God, her deception dissolved and she realized that the power she knew, though real, was vial. It was dark. It was unclean. And that is why Paul is warning the Colossians here. This philosophy, this spirituality offered by these teachers creeping into the church there, they may sound plausible, it may even have real spiritual power behind it, but it’s not a clean power. In fact, it will result, he says, in bondage. Do you see that at the beginning of verse 8? “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit.” They will tell you, “You know, we found it; we found it - the path to liberty, to fullness, to joy!” Paul says, “You know, if you follow them, their empty deceptions will only lead you deeper into bondage.”
That is often the way, isn’t it? We are culturally hardwired to privilege the novel, the new, over the old and the familiar. And so along comes some new teaching and, “Here’s the key! Here’s the silver bullet! Here’s what you’ve been waiting for at last! This will do it for you!” And we’re predisposed to privilege the innovative and the new and so often we’re swept away by it. Paul says be careful; be careful. Being swept away by the novel only leads to bondage. He wants them to fix their eyes upon Christ. He says this whole thing is “not according to Christ,” verse 8. “I really want you to rivet your gaze there. Everything else will lead you astray. Everything else. It’s not that there’s no spiritual power, but it’s just power to lead you into captivity, not into freedom, not into fullness, whatever it may promise to the contrary.” So that’s what behind door number one - bondage, not freedom; empty deceit, not spiritual fullness; mere human tradition and a philosophy that is ultimately bankrupt.
The Message About Jesus That Paul Preached
What about door number two, the other fork in the road? Look with me at verses 9 and 10. So the false teachers at Colossae were offering spiritual fullness by means of their techniques and their insights and their rituals. And Paul says, “No, that’s all empty deceit.” But he tells us where real fullness can be found, doesn’t he? You see it in verse 10? Where is real fullness to be found? He says, “You are filled in Christ.” In Him. Fullness is found in Him! You’ve been filled “in Him who is the head of all rule and authority.” You know, unlike the message of these teachers, unlike these spiritual entities that they have been invoking, Jesus can deliver because He’s the King of kings and the Lord of lords and all power and authority belongs to Him. He doesn’t make empty promises. And so true fullness, true freedom is available to you. That for which your heart is longing, for which your heart was made - to know God, to have fellowship with Him - you can find it in Jesus. That’s Paul’s message. Whereas the tradition, the philosophy of these teachers was empty, fullness, you can be filled in Jesus Christ alone.
So when somebody asks you for the basis of your hope, you can say, can't you if you're a Christian, "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame." It's not subjective. It's not based on your feelings, your emotions. It's not flights of emotional self-deception. "I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus name. On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand." Have you found that to be true? So just follow Paul's logic for a moment; see if you can put all of this together. The empty deceit of the merely human philosophy being peddled at Colossae is going to lead you into bondage, Paul says because behind it there are these sinister powers, these demonic powers, the elemental spirits of the world. And in contrast, the Christian Gospel focuses on, rests on Jesus Christ in whom all authority and power resides and He can bring you into the spiritual fullness you've been longing for. And He does it, He's able to do it because, verse 9, "in Him all the fullness of deity dwells bodily."
God Has Come Down
Now we need to camp out over that phrase because it is extraordinary. The claim that it’s making is enormous. Jesus, Paul says, in Jesus Christ God has come down and made His home among us; enfleshed, the transcendent God. In a dualistic world where matter and spirit were opposites, the sort of thing that probably the Colossian teachers were peddling in, this claim here is revolutionary - the transcendent God dwelling in the humanity of Jesus Christ. The Shorter Catechism, I think, sums up the Biblical teaching admirably when it says that “The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ who, being the eternal Son of God, became Man and so was and continues to be, both God and Man in two distinct natures and one person forever.” God and Man. Fully, truly, really human entering into all that creaturely existence entails, with all its limitations and liabilities. But this One, whose feet trod the dusty streets of Palestine, who knew hunger, who had nowhere to lay His head, who knew exhaustion. You remember Him in the boat in the middle of the lake while the storm is raging and the disciples have to wake Him up; He’s exhausted. This One whose flesh was torn and lacerated by a Roman whip and into whose hands and feet the nails were driven at Golgotha, this One, Paul says, was God. Not partly God, not derived from God, not like God; the only God there is, he says, dwells in all the fullness, the plenitude of His being, in Jesus Christ. There’s no remainder of Godhead left outside of Jesus. All the fullness of deity was pleased to dwell in Him bodily.
Did you notice the present tense? That's important too - "dwells." Not "dwelt," not "will dwell" - "dwells." The fullness of deity dwells in Him now, today and forever. He didn't become divine at some point or stop being divine at any point during His earthly ministry, not even in the horror of the cross. Neither did He enter upon deity at His resurrection or some such formulation. The One who was conceived of the virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, whose body and soul endures hell at Calvary, this Man, this Man was always the God whose being fills the universe and who presides over all things from the throne of glory. And Paul is telling us in this mysterious union of deity and humanity that persists forever indissoluble, because of it, because the fullness of deity is in the Man Christ Jesus, human beings like you and me may be filled in Him. That is to say, God comes close and we can come close to Him and have communion, fellowship, union in Jesus with the God for whom we were made. In Him, all the fullness of deity dwells, bodily, and you are filled in Him.
How do you get access to fullness, to the fullness of deity, to the - the Greek word is “pleroma” - to Godhead, in Jesus and nowhere else? You want a spiritual connection? This is the only place it may safely be found - in the Man, Christ Jesus. It’s all just another way to say this. That draw upwards that tugs on your heart, the quest for that spiritual connection, transcendence, the search for fullness, you’re not going to find an answer to it in Dead Sea salt baths or altars to deities you’re not sure really exist. Or the quest for the divine in all of us - tapping into your inner goddess or some such nonsense. There’s only one place, only one place fullness can be found - it’s in Jesus Christ. If anyone is offering you spiritual reality and they’re not offering you Christ as you meet Him uniquely in the pages of holy Scripture, what they’re really offering you is bondage, not freedom. They’re offering empty lies, not spiritual fullness. You can, you can get close to God, you can know Him, be filled in Him, satisfied in Him, at rest at last, you can if you trust in Jesus Christ. You can. You don’t need a bag of tricks. You don’t need a gimmick or a new technique. None of that will get you there. Knowing Jesus, knowing Jesus is how you come to know God.
Do You Know Him?
Listen, just to be clear, I’m not asking if you know about Him intellectually. I’m not asking if you can recite for me a standard outline of Christian truth. Most of us, I suspect, could do so admirably. I’m asking if Jesus has your heart. I’m asking if Jesus is first. I’m asking if you have Him - not some notion of Him, not some tradition about Him, not some way to assimilate Jesus into your system. I’m asking, “Do you know Him? Is Jesus Christ real to your life, to your heart? Do you know Him?” That is the difference between Christianity and all the other options, you know; between what’s behind door number one and door number two. Behind door number one may be spiritual power, but it’s not clean and it leads to bondage. What’s behind door number two? It’s not a philosophy at all; it’s a person. You open the door and what meets you is not a system; it is Jesus Christ. He’s the One your heart’s been aching for! Fullness is found in Him. Do you have Him? Do you want fullness? You have to get into Him. You are filled in Him. Do you know Jesus or is this just a game? Is this just the routine? Are we just going through the motions or do you have Christ? Are you full, filled in Him? Do you know God because you know Him?
Clean power, true freedom - only in Jesus Christ. Please don’t accept any substitutes. Paul’s issuing a warning. See to it that no one takes you captive by any of the counterfeits out there. Rivet your gaze on Christ crucified, risen, and reigning and never allow your eye to stray and you will have fullness in Him. Let’s pray together.
Lord, we confess how easy it is to reduce our Christianity to a philosophy that resembles the empty deceit of the Colossian teachers’ alien message rather than the expression of personal communion with the risen Christ, which is what is on offer to us in the Gospel. So now before You, in Your presence, we ask You to take hold of our hearts and our consciences, and bring us to repentance, bring us to the cross, bring us to Christ and keep us there, because there is where there’s life and there is where there’s fullness and there is where there is clean power. Would You do that today in all our hearts for Your glory, for Jesus’ sake? Amen.
© 2018 First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.