I think I sometimes have missed the point of Colossians because I look at the problem the Colossians were struggling with and it is not so much of a struggle for me.
Paul talks about philosophy and empty deception and you start diving into the specifics of the heresy there at Colossae and it is a little strange.
It just doesn’t seem that hard to say no to.
I mean, there was the worship of angels. (v.18)
It was all based on these so-called visions that someone said he was having. (v.18)
It claimed to be this philosophy, offering up new and hidden insight. (v.8)
It offered itself up as the best way of thinking about religion. (v.23)
It had all sorts of rules and regulations. Some of which appeared to be Jewish. (v.16.)
Others which seemed more ascetic – as if physical things were somehow unspiritual in and of themselves. (v.21)
It was concerned with angelic powers and cosmic principalities, one had to establish the right relationship with them, especially through certain rituals and religious practices and then you would be able to enter into the mystery of the divine fullness and really know God. It was not an absolute all frontal attack on Jesus Christ in the sense He is not important at all, it was more He is not as important as you are thinking and to really be spiritual you need something more.
If you look at the commentaries, there’s all this discussion about whether the heresy was this weird Jewish hybrid, Gnosticism, or a kind of pre-gnosticism, there are actually at least forty four different suggestions, which are really kind of interesting if you are into that sort of thing, but it can sort of lose us and feel way back then when actually I think if you just step back and look at the way Paul puts it all in verse 8 you’ll see that whether or not you know what those words mean or even ever struggle with any of the particulars or perhaps identify the exact heresy itself the basic, core issue is unbelievably relevant and in your face.
He writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of man, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.”
Tradition, the way people have always thought.
Elementary principles of the world. The way people just generally look at life.
The basic bottom line issue in this heresy isn’t all that unique, looking at life according to the ideas of men and the basic principles of the world rather than according to the new reality we have received in Christ.
And whether or not we are ever tempted to go worship an angel, this temptation is exactly where we are at.
The temptation to look at life just the same way as the people around us.
The Colossians, it wasn’t like these ideas were coming out of the blue.
This was the way the people around them thought.
If you look at the history of the city of Colossae there were four basic groups of people who lived there, the Phrygians they were the natives, the Greeks, Jewish people had been living there for a couple hundred years by the time Paul wrote, and then the Romans.
The Phrygians they were big into these mystery religions. As one scholar notes, “The mystery religions were the basic foundations of the regions for centuries.” Even before Colossae became a city. It is kind of a little tricky to summarize the mystery religions, but it was a lot of superstition and fear. They had these societies that you would try to join, mystery societies, and if you joined you would be initiated into these secrets which you couldn’t tell anyone else. It was through these secrets that you obtained some sort of power.
The Greeks, they were philosophers. And there’s no way I could ever summarize Greek philosophy, but Plato played a big role obviously and Plato had this big old dichotomy between your mind and your body, the physical and the spiritual. The physical was not nearly as important as the spiritual.
The Jewish faith, we know the Jewish faith somewhat well, but at this point in time, it was perverted into a kind of works righteousness. You do this, you don’t do that, and you keep the law well enough and you earn your approval with God.
And the Romans, there was like this burgeoning movement, it was the emperor cult, looking at the emperor as the Son of God and the source of all blessing.
What I am saying is that if you look at what the people in the world were believing and you look at this heresy and you see that it’s not this really wacko-weird thing, it is just basically a mixture of what people all around the Colossians were thinking and believing.
There was a reason this heresy was so tempting for the Colossians and that had to do with the world in which they lived.
For us to start worshiping angels and buying into asceticism…that would be really strange. But for the Colossians, you begin to understand their historical context, it wouldn’t have been that strange at all because it was just basically what the people all around them thought. What Paul’s concerned about it wasn’t that the Colossians were going to out and out reject Christ and start thinking in these strange new ways that nobody around them was thinking, it was that they were going out and try to mix some of the contemporary worldly ways of thinking about God and religion to the new way of thinking they had received from Epaphras when they first were saved.
And Paul’s like, you can’t do that.
If you have embraced this new view of reality, you can’t go back and look at things the way everyone else does. That’s why he says in 2:20, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to its decrees?”
And you know I am saying that hits pretty close to home.
Talk about contemporary relevance.
I think we can look at the theme, as you have received Christ Jesus so walk in him and agree with that.
We feel with Paul as we think about the reason for the book. We are all against syncretism.
And then when we read about the heresy, we’re all against that. No worshiping angels in this church.
But it is when we get here, that things get a little more heated. Because while it isn’t all that difficult for us not to think like the people in the Colossian’s world, it is very hard for us not to think like the people in our world.
I am convinced the greatest danger for most of us as we look at what we say we believe is not that we just out and out deny the truths that we received when we first became believers.
That is a danger.
But I don’t think it is nearly as much of a danger as accepting those truths, confessing them at church and then going out and living by a completely different set of truths that we have learned from the people around us.
Saying we believe that God created the world and then looking at our lives and planning things out as if we were the ones in charge.
Saying we believe that God created the world and then not considering the purpose that He has given us but instead feeling like we have the right to make our plans and design our own purpose in life.
Saying we believe in the fall but then looking at most of our problems as completely biological in nature.
Saying we believe in the fall, that our children are born depraved, but then acting as if the most important thing we could ever do for them was increase their self-esteem.
Saying we believe in the fall but then getting all upset when things go wrong because we think that deserve better.
Saying we believe in the fall but then thinking of ourselves as better than other people.
Saying we believe in the incarnation but then doubting God’s concern for us and acting as if he were somehow far removed from what is happening in our lives.
Saying we believe in the incarnation but then being unwilling to make sacrifices ourselves to serve others in need.
Saying we believe in the incarnation but then defining success as being important in the eyes of others.
Saying we believe in the cross but trying to manipulate God by going to church and doing the right things in order to get stuff from Him.
Saying we believe in the cross but then becoming furious when we are criticized because it is so important that we think of ourselves as good people.
Saying we believe in the cross but finding our identity and self-worthy basically on the basis of how hard we work or how moral we are.
Saying we believe in the cross but looking at people as lost cases because we think of their sin as really too great.
Saying we believe in Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the dead but then spending our whole lives fearing death.
Saying we believe in Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the dead but then neglecting our families and neglecting our spiritual responsibilities in order to get more and more stuff here on earth.
I look at the Colossians, these are people who Paul considered truly converted, great things had happened in their lives spiritually and yet it is very clear that Paul is seriously concerned that they are going to try to combine the truths they had received in Jesus Christ with the basic principles of the world and that concerns me, because I don’t think we are any different.
In fact, you don’t want to say this, but it is almost like it might be more difficult. We have the world’s view of reality being force-fed to us almost 24-7. Which is why we have to take some real practical steps if we are not just going to cave in.
I think we have to consciously and deliberately do what Paul does in Colossians if we are not going to fall into this trap.
Let me just give you the bullet points.
The first thing he does, he reminds them of reality.
That’s chapter 1.
Who he is
Who they are
Who God is
Where life comes from
What God has accomplished through Jesus Christ
Who Jesus is
What is the point of life
Basic, life-transforming truths
I remember hearing a story about this famous artist, I think it was Van Gogh or maybe Picasso, he was just a monster personally. A terrible man. He had all these wives, mistresses, he went through them all rather quickly because he was so mean and nasty. But apparently there was this one woman, she was able to stay with him for a pretty long period of time, and after he died she wrote about it, and she talked about living with this man who lied and berated her and told her things that weren’t true on a daily basis, and she was saying that the only way you can live with a liar is if you are certain about the truth. You have to keep reminding yourself of the truth or you are just sucked into his world.
It’s just true, the people around us, they are constantly telling us lies. It may not even be malicious. But they are telling us lies about where to find our identity and what is important and where life comes from and what is the point of it all, and if you and I are not going to end up just thinking like the people around us we have to become experts in the truth. We have to know without a doubt what is real.
The second thing Paul does, he charges them to be on their guard.
It’s not just yes, yes, yes there is also no, no, no.
That’s chapter 2.
I tell you what, we say a lot about ourselves by what we are zealous to protect.
Most of us if we had something really valuable, we would put gates up and security fences and be really vigilant to keep anyone from stealing.
You’ve been given something more valuable than anything else in the gospel, you know reality. And it’s almost like you have to think of the truth as these precious jewels that we have been given and the world as robbers, and the world wants to take the precious truth of the jewel from you with everything it has got.
And the third thing Paul does, he draws out the practical implications of the truths the Colossians had embraced.
That is chapter’s three and four.
“Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
It is not enough for us to know the truth and be able to spot error we have to be actively engaged in this process of renewing every dimension of our live – spiritual, mental, social, corporate, by thinking, hoping and living out the implications of that truth in our daily lives.
It is not simply that we look at our lives and ask ourselves what is the right thing to do, it is that we need to learn to look at our lives and ask what is reality and what does look like to live my life in a way that is keeping with that reality?