FREEDOM VERSUS FALSEHOOD
by Steve Zeisler
I want to invite you to do a very difficult thing this morning: Imagine
me to be the glib, air-headed host of the television game show Let's
Make a Deal, grinning with capped teeth and filled with phony enthusiasm
and good will. This is the game show where people get all sorts of goodies---for
instance, $10,000, a trip to Europe, a new car. Then I invite them to trade
in everything they have just won for what is behind the door on the stage
behind me. Time after time they make the trade. The door opens and there's
a bale of alfalfa or some equally terrible surprise. They give up true riches
and real advantages and come away with nothing in their place.
Why would anyone do that? With the range of riches they have in their possession,
what would ever make them want to trade these advantages for what's behind
the door? Well, that phenomenon takes place in settings other than this
game show. Men and women over the centuries have been tempted time and again
to give up riches in Christ and gain nothing in return. They have listened
to the glib patter of deceivers who deny the first place that Christ deserves
in our lives, thinking, and worship; who offer them some phony alternative
and take away everything they have.
In Colossians 2 we are going to encounter Paul's teaching about the error
that had invaded the church in Colossae. He alluded to it earlier, but this
is his most direct discussion of the deceivers who had infiltrated this
young church. Paul says, "Let no one delude you with persuasive argument."
At times we find very powerful the persuasion to give away what we have
in Christ and grab something else; we are attracted by the mystery behind
the door on the stage, by tantalizing possibilities.
Let's briefly take a tour of chapter 2 to identify these deceivers. Paul
says in verse 4:
I say this in order that no one [and he has some specific people
in mind] may delude you with persuasive argument.
Verse 8 says:
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and
empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to elementary
principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
It wasn't just delusion that these people were advancing; they were taking
the Colossians captive. There were bad motives behind what they were doing.
These deceivers were going to deliberately and selfishly take for themselves
the life, hope, energy, and joy of these young Christians. They were going
to use these Christians for their own ends if they were allowed to.
Verse 16 describes some of the ways phony religion operates when it takes
over a life:
Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or
drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day---
The people who sell the deception behind the door on the stage end up becoming
supreme in the lives of those who listen to them. They have taken people
captive and have begun to run their lives. What starts as the promise of
something exotic, wonderful, and enriching becomes in fact a form of slavery.
Time and again you see young believers who have been caught up in these
kinds of deceptions lose their freedom and hope as they become more and
more frightened, more under the thumb of those who are selling the deception,
and more judged or restricted by them.
In verse 20 he says:
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 decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!"
There is an accelerating loss of life. Fewer and fewer things are acceptable,
more and more phony rules and ridiculous prohibitions apply. People's lives
become reduced, filled with fear, and hemmed in.
Scholars have spent a good bit of time in the last century writing about
the heresy that had invaded Colossae. There have been many Ph.D. dissertations
written on it, and this is probably still an open field because no one has
conclusively determined in detail what was being taught to undermine the
faith of the Colossians.
It is clear that the deceivers were not offering them rank, godless selfishness.
They were not saying, "Let's get drunk, frequent prostitutes, and live
lives of debauchery." Nor were they saying, "Let's be greedy money
grubbers who care nothing for people, God, or anything else." They
weren't as obviously destructive as either of those. They were religious;
they used the language of God and the name of Christ, and there are references
here to baptism, circumcision, festivals and holidays, holy experience,
the law, tradition, and so forth. That was what made these deceivers so
Some scholars have concluded that Judaism is behind Paul's warnings because
references are made to the Sabbath, circumcision, and so on. Some say it
was the mysticism of the first-century Essenes, some the mysticism of the
Mercabah sect of Jews or other Jewish myths. Others say that if those elements
were there they were only minor issues, not the main problem; the early
Gnostics were really the source of deception.
Still others say it was neither the Gnostics nor the Jews. It was more likely
classic Greek philosophy, such as Platonism or neo-Pythagoreanism. Some
scholars say it was the pagan mystery cults that were everywhere around
the Mediterranean in the first century, those old, dark religions of the
worship of demons, powers of darkness, and the unknown with mysterious chants
and language that invited power to change people's lives. People were drawn
into these mystery religions that were everywhere in the ancient world.
Others see behind Paul's concern the lure of Iranian redemption myths or
the Isis mysteries of Egypt. A temple to Apollo has an inscription that
may or may not be pertinent to what was taking place in Colossae; the Homeric
hymn to Demeter may be pertinent as well---on and on.
Pagan, Jewish, Greek; from the desert, from the cities; from pagan darkness,
from the light of Judaesm---any of these sources could in fact create religious
ideas, and beckonings to win people away from Christ. I'm convinced that
the reason we don't know for sure what the problem was that plagued Colossae
is that then we wouldn't be as well-defended against all the other forms
of deception that might creep in our day. We need to be on the alert from
every direction---from the secular humanists of our day who deny the existence
of God for all practical purposes and yet use religious language to take
over people's lives; from the well-known cults that have existed for most
of the twentieth century; from the New Age thinking that has thrown up any
number of new cults around us---any kind of religious language that would
appeal to the spirit of human beings but in fact take the place of Christ.
We must heed the warning sounding throughout this second chapter of Colossians.
NO SHORT CUTS
The question that comes back again is, why would anybody ever go for any
of this? Why would we who have everything in Christ ever listen to some
other alternative, or set it aside for what is behind the door on the stage?
Let's go back through this chapter now to understand some of Paul's testimony
as to why these things happen and to be fortified and strengthened by what
we learn here. Chapter 2, verses 6-8:
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk
in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established
in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception,
according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles
of the world, rather than according to Christ.
There are two helpful images that the apostle draws to begin with. He says
first of all that as you have received the Lord, or as you have been born
again and started a new life, in the same way walk in him. Paul may have
been thinking of raising a baby. When a little child starts out she receives
life from her parents and is born into the world, and at first she is unable
to go very far. Then she becomes a toddler who can walk somewhat shakily
and uncertainly. Eventually she learns to really walk. She can venture farther
and learns more of the dangers of life. Finally they can let her cross a
busy street, and become more independent. In spiritual things the life is
imparted to you to begin with, but you have to learn to "walk;"
there's a process, a period of growth that takes place before you can trust
yourself to walk farther and farther into different kinds of circumstances,
before you're mature enough to handle various things. What Paul is saying
is that the beginning point ought, over the period of growing and maturing,
to lead to greater freedom, insight, and potential.
The other image he uses is that of a root. "Having been firmly rooted"
might refer to a tree that has roots that go into the ground. It is a bit
fragile to start with, and then it becomes more established, more firmly
rooted. It grows; and eventually there's sturdiness, and fruit. if we were
to imagine a tree. That also talks about a process. You have to be willing
to learn, to be protected for a time. You can't handle everything that you
want to handle immediately. You learn to trust the Lord, and maturity happens
over time, not instantly.
What is always at the heart of delusion or false religion is the promise
that you don't really have to learn to trust the Lord; your faith doesn't
have to grow over time. You don't have to learn to deal with the flesh with
all its memories and deceptions. You can leap from childhood to maturity
overnight. You can instantly become everything that you want to be---a person
of stature, authority, power, and winsomeness. Just take what's behind the
door on the stage. Yet Paul is saying, "As you have received the Lord,
learn to walk a day at a time, a step at a time. Grow in the Lord. We're
in a process that's going to end in glory; we're sure of the hope that is
before us. We have the intimacy of Christ with us right here every day;
he is our companion everywhere we go. Our roots go down into what is really
valuable soil, and the growth is taking place. Don't let the process be
disrupted by the promise of something that in the long run will make you
a slave and take everything away from you."
THE PROCESS OF DELUSION
In verse 8 Paul does not just indicate that we have enemies, but he gives
us three insights as to how this deluding process or this taking captive
works: "See to it that no one takes you captive through 1) philosophy
and empty deception, 2) according to the tradition of men, 3) according
to the elementary principles of the world..." First of all, you may
encounter an intellectual challenge to your faith. We live in a highly intellectual
community; most people here are well-educated. At some point in your life
you have probably run up against the arguments that say in effect that anyone
who takes faith seriously, apprehends what is invisible, or believes in
a personal God is foolish.
For example, suppose you are a young Christian, and you know for sure that
God has answered your prayers. Let's imagine that you're in a difficult,
painful family relationship. You have prayed, "Lord, help me! I don't
know what to do." And all of a sudden, you sense that God is alive
and present, and attentive to your prayers. You begin to see things about
the relationship that you didn't see before, changes are brought about,
and the Lord gives life and answers your prayers just as you asked that
it should be done. It is undeniable to you that he both heard and acted
on what you requested of him, that he knows and loves you. And then you
encounter someone who approaches life as a faithless intellectual, who says,
"Oh yes, I once prayed and had a similar experience back in my immaturity.
You'll outgrow it and get beyond it. All religions bring about an occasional
emotional high. There is a scientific explanation for everything."
Suddenly, there's a threat to your faith, what you know for sure really
happened, because someone claims to know more and is bringing to bear a
pseudo-intellectual challenge. But scripture says we are not to be taken
captive by such empty deceptions.
The second thing Paul says is that there can be a traditional appeal to
religion that would take away faith in Christ. "Don't be captivated
...according to the tradition of men," he says. This is a form of deception
that is what Jesus encountered in his earthly ministry. For instance, Jesus
told the man who had been healed to take up his mat, and the Jews objected,
"No you can't take up your mat. It's the Sabbath. Who do you think
you are? We have restrictions on this that we have always followed."
Religion can exert tremendous influence just by being traditional. You know
what it sounds like: "We don't have that sort of meeting." "We
don't let people with haircuts like yours into our building." "We
would never think of letting ordinary people pray; we have ministers who
are supposed to pray." "We have professionals who do the baptizing."
"You can't read your own Bible and come to your own conclusions, or
call your friends together and let them read the Bible. The approach we
take is to give you approval books that have been written on the Bible."
"We don't have folks like that as part of our fellowship; they're not
welcome." The mere fact that tradition has existed for generations
exerts influence on us spiritually. It can sound weighty in the long run
and thus it can deny Christ.
Thirdly, Paul refers to the elementary principles or the elemental spirits
of the world. This is a strange and interesting word in Greek, stoicheia.
Probably what Paul is referring to here is ancient, dark, and invisible
powers. The ancient people believed that the world was made up of four elements---earth,
wind, fire and water---and that these had powers that went beyond just their
physical manifestation. They were somehow the elemental organizing principals
of everything that is. The idea was that there were personalities and deep
undergirdings to the earth and power that flowed in mysterious ways. This
power often could be entered into only by some kind of dark, religious,
and mysterious encounter with somebody who had special knowledge. The whole
business of dealing with demons at times and with fairy stories at other
times made people vulnerable; they had a longing to know, to be in touch
with sources of mysterious power. That too can be a phony religion.
People will often appear to know things about the invisible world, to have
authority to overturn what can be seen, to bring about change. We can recognize
what Paul is warning against here in much of our culture today: chants,
goddesses, harmonic convergence's, horoscopes, voodoo, the jargon of the
new age, the jargon of the self-help movement, gurus like Sun Myung Moon
and others who claim to have been tapped by something mysterious and distant.
The Mormons are an example with their angels, magic glasses, and hidden
documents hearkening back to some sort of ancient civilization that never
We need to listen carefully whenever anyone is claiming power to influence
the world or to bring about changes, who does not give first and complete
honor to Christ. There are even some in Christian communities who meet in
small societies and in effect sell special secrets for doing spiritual warfare
of various kinds. They are not enthusiastic that the Lord be given honor,
but that the thrill of the hunt is on as they battle the darkness. They
have that same psychology that Paul is warning against here.
All of these things---intellectualism, tradition, and the elemental spirits---can
be alternatives to Jesus Christ. They can be ways of attracting us to shortcuts
that are different from faith in Christ and the maturity that comes over
time spent walking with him.
THE GREATNESS OF CHRIST
What does Paul suggest, then? He is saying beware of those who would take
you captive, delude you, use you, in the long run enslave you, promise you
what is not possible, misrepresent the world, fascinate you, and destroy
you. But does Paul then give their teaching in detail to help us combat
these deceptions? No, he goes back and talks about Christ. The answer is
Jesus! It is when we are certain of his greatness, overtaken by his magnificence,
more deeply in love with him, that we are best defended against any alternative.
For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form,
and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule
In him God has come and joined the human race. There is no other answer.
In him you have partaken of this fullness, you have been made complete,
and you have been given everything you need. He is the head over all rule
and authority. These are great reminders of what he has already taught in
chapter 1 about who Jesus Christ is. Verses 11-15:
...and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision
made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision
of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also
raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from
the dead. And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision
of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all
our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting
of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out
of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers
and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over
them through Him.
UNION WITH CHRIST
That is a wonderful encapsulation not only of who Christ is but what he
has done and what happens to us. We are with him on the cross; we are baptized
into his death, burial and resurrection. We have a circumcision made without
hands on our hearts, not just outwardly or physically. We rejoice with him,
overthrowing the power of principalities and everything arrayed against
him. That is who we are in Christ.
I want to briefly identify three ideas in verses 11 through 15. It says
first of all that our flesh has been removed. "In him you were circumcised...without
hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ...."
Now, Paul is not using the term flesh to talk about ordinary bones, blood,
and tissue of various kinds that make up our bodies. He is using it for
the principle of rebellion into which we were born. Further, we were not
only antagonistic to God but destructive to ourselves. And over the course
of our lifetime our flesh will take a particular form in us such that there
is a kind of rebellion to which we are most prone. We are going to be proud,
perhaps in a subtle way; or damaged and frightened, either subtly or very
overtly and terribly. We are going to have a series of weaknesses by which
our rebellion against God has a particular ability to ruin us and distance
us from him.
A fundamental change took place at our conversion, and we are no longer
owned by our flesh. Our flesh will still continue to exert its power and
influence---tempt us, shout at us, persuade us if it can---but it is external
to us now, not who we are in our heart of hearts. The spirit of God is now
resident within us, and at our deepest level we are joined to the Lord,
not in rebellion against him. It is great news to discover that we are not
what our feelings sometimes declare.
Secondly, he says that we are forgiven. The reference to baptism here is
primarily associated with the fact that there were decrees against us once,
guilt in which we lived. We did in fact offend the God of the universe.
We have done things of which we are and ought to be ashamed; we are guilty
as charged. And yet we are forgiven because of what has taken place on the
cross. No one may ever again bring up a charge against his elect. It is
no longer held against us; we are no longer guilty of anything we have ever
The third thing Paul does is remind us that Christ has triumphed over every
alternative, every antagonist against him. In verse 15 he says that no one
will ever change the rules. The day will never come when somebody will say,
"That worked for a time, but now Jesus is subordinate, set aside, and
some other lord is in place." The war was fought on the cross and it
was won by Christ. We are in him, and we are new creatures, forgiven and
alive. His gift to us is unchangeable; it can't be taken away.
NO OTHER VOICE
Therefore, in verse 16, Paul says we are not to let anybody else act as
our judge or restrict our lives. There are time references here: Sabbaths,
new moon festivals, and so on. Paul means we are not to let anyone tell
us what to do, make us jump to their tune, make us show up at their command.
I think many of us have let our work environment take the role described
here. It's almost a religious role. We have to do what we're told when we're
told. And there are any number of other ways in which our lives can be owned
in the way we spend our time or in the things we do---what we may or may
not eat or touch, where we may or may not go. The voice of these powerful
restrictions grows tighter and tighter. Instead of being free servants of
God living in his world, obeying his call, joyfully interacting with all
that he has made, loving his people, going where he sends us, and afraid
of nothing, we live lives that become more and more restricted, more frightened,
and more crushed. We don't have to live that kind of restricted life. We
are children of God. We are to be who he has called us to be.
Paul is clear and authoritative in his reminder that Jesus Christ is Lord
of all and that we must not set aside our life in Christ. This life is growth
over time. It is learning to trust him, walk in him, and know him. We have
his companionship at every point, his reminding us of what is true, his
applying the truth to our lives. We must not set aside all the business
of Christian growth in order to have what is behind the door on the stage,
which claims advantages that are short-lived and that result in slavery.
I invite you now to ask yourself whether something is attempting to take
the place of Christ at the deepest level of your life; whether something
else would make you obey it; perhaps frighten you into serving it; or claim
advantages that are more quickly available to you than learning to walk
in love, pray, and follow Jesus. If there are captivating, deluding influences
or voices that have reduced the joy of your Christian life, then I invite
you to face them, deny them, draw near to the Lord, and give him back first
place in your life.
Catalog No. 4331
September 13, 1992
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