Since 9/11 our government has put us on a state of alert on many occasions. We have been told when our government received information regarding the possibility of a terrorist attack. The decision has been made to pass that information along to us rather than keep us in the dark. And so, we have been warned. The warning is to stay alert. We must stay alert, because there are those who would destroy us. There are those who would destroy our lives, our children, our loved ones, and our entire way of life.
We have been asked to keep our eyes open, to be aware, to be vigilant, to watch out for strange things, and to notify authorities when something suspicious is going on. And considering what we are facing, it seems like a good idea.
There is another area where we must stay alert as well. We must be alert spiritually, because there are dangers to our faith. There are dangers to Christianity. So we must keep our eyes and ears open and be aware of what is happening around us. You see, there are those who would pervert the truth of Christianity, and this perversion manifests itself in subtle ways. I can assure you that you have already encountered these dangerous teachings. Our text today gives us a stern warning against any teaching that would detract from Christ.
At the time when Paul wrote this letter there was a subtle and powerful false teaching that was threatening to infiltrate the Colossian church. It's known to us today as the Colossian heresy. The Colossian heresy is an unnamed heresy, in that all we know about it is what we can glean from half of the argument that Paul gives here. We're hearing half of a conversation - that is, Paul's letter. We don't hear the conversation or the words of Epaphras that filled in the other half. So we're a little bit in the dark. All that we can glean about the Colossian heresy, we glean from this letter. But we do know some of the important elements. We know that it was a blend of Greek and Jewish philosophies. We know that it contained elements of false philosophy. We see that in chapter 2, verses 8 through 15. It contained elements of legalism (2:16 -17). It contained elements of mysticism or experientialism (2:18 -19). And it contained elements of asceticism (2:20 and 23). And these elements, these traits, these characteristics, were shared by both Jews and Greeks, or I should say some sects of the Jews and the Greeks, particularly the Jewish sect known as the Essenes, and the Greeks who came later to be known to us as the Gnostics. So throughout the letter, Paul switches back and forth between his seeming attack of Jewish elements of this false teaching, and his attack on the Greek elements of this false teaching. This false teaching, this heresy, was a blend of these two philosophies.
Colossians 2:8 (NKJV) Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
"Beware" is a present imperative of command from the Greek word blepo, which means: "to look at," but it is also used of mental functions like: "direct one's attention to something, watch, beware, be on guard." It is a command for a constant circumspect watchfulness, because of the dangers lurking at every corner.
The idea is "look out". The idea is: "guard yourself from this". The idea is: "beware of this". And that's how it's used in Philippians chapter 3 when Paul talks about the Judaisers who were threatening the church there:
Philippians 3:2 (NKJV) Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the mutilation!
The Colossian Christians were to: "Beware lest anyone cheat you..." Here Paul uses a word that's not even found in ancient literature before his time. Maybe he even coined this word. It's the verb "sulagogeo". It's a compound word from "sulo", which means: "booty", as in booty that you would capture, and "ago", which means: "to lead or carry". It's to carry away a prize won in battle. It's to be taken captive. One dictionary states, in regard to this word, "Paul's use of this verb gives the picture of prisoners being led away with a rope around their necks like the long strings of captives portrayed on Syrian monuments".
They are in danger of being kidnapped by error. To bring this up to date, we would say they were in danger of being taken hostage! That is something we hear much about in our day. In several parts of the world today, ordinary American tourists may suddenly find themselves taken hostage and denied their rightful liberties as Americans. Paul sees a like danger facing Christians who are taken captive by wrong philosophy, wrong teaching, false doctrine. Such can deprive believers of their Christian liberty and hold them hostage for years, if not for the rest of their lives.
Contrary to what the world believes, nobody is freer than a Christian. Nobody:
Galatians 5:1 (NKJV) Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
The verb "blepo", that Paul uses in our text, is in the present tense. It's a present imperative. So it's something you are going to continually guard yourself from. There's always that danger there of being caught up in some false teaching in one way or another. So guard yourself. It's so important to the life and the health of the church and the members that make up the church.
As one expositor noted: "Where imprecise doctrine and careless biblical exegesis are tolerated, and where biblical wisdom and discernment languish, people tend to look for something more than the simple sufficiency God has provided in Christ".
How many of you have ever heard of the People's Temple Christian Church? Anybody ever heard of that church? How many have heard of Jim Jones? Jim Jones was leader of the People's Temple Christian Church. And one of the most frightening discoveries about the People's Temple Christian Church was that a large majority of its members came from Christian homes of one sort or another. And most of those that joined the church did so because they believed it offered a higher experience of Christian living. Yet the so-called church dissolved overnight when nearly 1000 of its members followed its leader in a mass suicide at Jonestown in the jungles of South America. Paul's warning is very pertinent to the church today, beware!
Now while every false teacher may not be a Jim Jones, every false teacher is dangerous in his own right. The apostle Paul knew that. He knew the danger. That's why he struggled so hard in the ministry. That's why he wrote, back in chapter 2, verse 1: "I want you to know what a great conflict I have for you...".
Paul goes on to say, "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy..."
What's philosophy? Well, we could very simply define it as: "the love of wisdom". "Philos" is the Greek word for love. "Sophos" is the Greek word for wisdom. So philosophy is: "The love of wisdom".
Does the negative reference to philosophy here condemn all philosophy? Does the Bible disparage the study of Plato, Socrates, Spinoza or Kant? I don't think so! We are all much indebted to philosophers of the past; to Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and others, for their keen insights into the nature of reality and life. The love of wisdom is a good thing in many cases. There are good and bad philosophies, but what the apostle has in mind here, of course, is the danger the Colossians are facing of being seduced by bad philosophy.
Plato used the word philosophy for the love of knowledge and wisdom. Greek thought used philosophy for the systematic treatment of a subject, investigation into life. In the New Testament, it came to mean: "human wisdom in contrast to revealed truth (the Bible)".
Historian, Adolf Schlatter, noted,"Everything that had to do with theories about God and the world and the meaning of human life was called 'philosophy' at that time, not only in pagan schools, but also in the Jewish schools of the Greek cities" (The Church in the New Testament Period [reprint, London: SPCK, 1955], pp. 150-54).
The first-century Jewish historian ,Josephus, wrote, "There are three philosophical sects among the Jews. The followers of the first of whom are the Pharisees, of the second the Sadducees, and the third sect who pretends to be a severer discipline are called Essenes" (Jewish Wars 2.8.2). Thus, the term philosophy was broad enough to encompass religious sects. The use of the definite article with philosophia shows that Paul was referring here to the specific beliefs of the Colossian errorists.
Paul is talking about something very specific here. But there is application here for us today. We may not fight against Gnosticism in its pure sense. But any philosophy that detracts from the sufficiency of Jesus Christ and the purity of His Word is to be rejected. And I can think of several in the church today, the foremost among them being pragmatism and mysticism or experientialism.
The philosopher of the fifth century B.C., Protageris of Abdura, is considered by many the father of pragmatism. Protageris taught that true wisdom is that which works. That's the modern church growth movement. The ends justify the means. Want to grow a church? Make it palatable to unbelievers. Then try to suddenly evangelize them, without threatening them in any way, without offending them in any way. By the way, this has become such a priority to some that one leader of the church growth movement warned, "If churches don't concern themselves with the issues of relevance and church growth, it's quite likely that within a generation, those institutions (and he's talking about the church) will be out of business". If we don't concern ourselves with relevance and church growth, the church will cease to exist? Is that what he's saying. That's blatant Armenianism that denies the sovereignty of God in building His church. They try to tell us, "Hey, if we're not relevant enough to the world, the church is going to cease to exist. It's going to be extinguished, and it's going to be our fault". That's a far cry from Matthew 16:18, where Christ says, "I will build My church and the gates of Hades won't prevail against it".
The philosophies of mysticism or experientialism have created a theological climate that is largely intolerant of precise doctrine and sound biblical exegesis. Authoritative, biblical preaching is decried as too dogmatic. It is rare now a days to hear a preacher challenge popular opinion with a clear teaching from God's Word and underscore the truth with a settled: "Thus saith the Lord". Mysticism also destroys discernment. Why should people think for themselves or compare what they are taught with Scripture when their teachers claim to receive truth directly from heaven? All of this serves to deny the sufficiency of God's Word and the sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Robert Thomas, professor of New Testament at The Master's Seminary, writes:
Precision (and he's talking about precision in handling God's Word) is a compelling desire to master the truth of God in more definitive terms, to facilitate a more accurate presentation of that truth to others and to safeguard against doctrinal slippage that leads to error and false doctrine.
Everyone will not appreciate precision and willingly assent to its importance. We live in a world that would have us to be satisfied, in certain cases, with rough estimate, particularly when it comes to theological matters. It takes a lot of patience and 'thick skin' to put up with the criticism and outright opposition that will come when God's servant insists on accuracy. There are too many 'ball-park' interpreters and expositors today. The theological atmosphere of evangelicalism is saturated with a dense fog of uncertainty and misplaced emphasis in handling the Word of God. Many churches are on the rocks because of careless hermeneutics, ignorance of Biblical languages, and unsystematic theology. Rough estimates as to what this or that passage means will not do. We need qualified expositors who will take the time and make the necessary sacrifices to do their homework well and bring clarity to the minds of God's people as they read and study God's holy Word.
This whole church growth movement of our day seems to be an anti-bible movement. We could outline the four cardinal tenets of the church growth movement this way: Number 1, don't offend. Number 2, don't bore people; don't preach long sermons. Number 3, never, never preach doctrine. And number 4, meet people's felt needs; make them feel good about themselves.
This is self-esteem champion Robert Schuller's philosophy of ministry. This is what Robert Schuller says: "For the church to address the unchurched with a theocentric (that means a God-centered) attitude is to invite failure in mission. The nonchurched who have no vital belief in a relationship with God will spurn, reject, or simply ignore the theologian, church spokesperson, preacher, or missionary who approaches with Bible in hand, theology on the brain and the lips, and expects nonreligious persons to suspend their doubts and swallow the theocentric assertions as fact". Schuller's entire premise is built around the assertion that the unregenerate are transformed through human ingenuity and not through a sovereign act of God's grace through faith in the Word of the Living God.
Contrast what Schuller said to what the apostle Paul taught:
Romans 1:16 (NKJV) For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.
Paul says that it is the Gospel that is the power of God. Our responsibility is to proclaim the Gospel. God will take care of how the heart responds to that.
There are many philosophies in our day that are deceiving young people, as well as many adults. One such philosophy is "Tolerance", which says, "No one can say what is right and what is wrong".
In a wealthy suburb of Indianapolis, a group of high school students were asked, "Was Adolf Hitler wrong in murdering millions of Jews?" They said, "Yes". The interviewer then asked them, "Why?" They did not realize that their response was chilling. "Well, you see," they said, "Hitler was defeated by the Allies. And in war, like everything else, the victor gets to define reality. The Allies determined that what Hitler had done was wrong. Therefore, he was wrong".
These students all came from Christian homes, so there was no excuse for them to be ignorant of the moral implications of that reply. Only one student differed, "I think Hitler would have been wrong, even if he had won the war and brainwashed everyone into believing he was right." This lone student could articulate moral absolute.
Students today say, "Maybe you think adultery, abortion or homosexuality is wrong, but who are you to decide for everyone else?" According to a Gallup Poll, 82% of college students today say they believe in no absolute truths. It really is: "anything goes" out there. Morality has been reduced to: "every man for himself." Right and wrong is no longer based on absolutes, but on individual opinion.
Without a moral compass, people cannot make rational decisions about what is right and wrong for themselves or for society. We can't decide if an unborn baby is a human being or a blob of tissue, because we have listened to the rhetoric of the "politically correct" instead of checking out the medical facts that life begins at conception - an absolute supported completely by the Bible. On subjects ranging from abortion, to homosexuality, to euthanasia, to sex before marriage, we have become a nation led by what is popular. We have let the evening news or the Hollywood elite or what is being taught in the halls of academia form our value system rather than moral absolutes of the Word of God.
Another philosophy of our day says: "The only meaning in life is what you create for yourself".
We live in perhaps the most self-centered age in our nation's history. Everyone seems to be saying, "I have a right not to have your existence affect my life". People have moved from the front porch to the back deck. They stop singing around the piano and start wearing headphones. The populace cries, "Leave me alone!"
Sadly, most Christians have been intimidated into surrendering to this secular ideology. In his book, Spiritual Marketplace, Wade Clark Roof points out that 50% of evangelical Christians believe that, "All religions are equally good and true". Josh McDowell and George Barna note that 56% of evangelical Christian young people said it was possible to get to heaven without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Believers, we are engaged today in a battle between worldviews. We must understand and defend a Biblical worldview in all of life. Furthermore, we must impart this Biblical worldview to the youth who will lead the next generation.
Paul goes on to describe this philosophy as "empty deceit". "Empty deceit" describes "philosophy". This is clear from the fact that the two nouns are the objects of one preposition, "through" (Gr. dia), and there is no article before "empty deceit." The idea is that the particular philosophy Paul had been warning his readers about was empty deception. These are not two separate dangers.
"Empty deceit" describes the nature of human philosophy. "Vain" is kenos: "empty." It is used figuratively of things: (a) "without content, without any basis, without truth, without power," or (b) of the effects, "without result, without profit, without effect, without reaching its goal".
The word "deceit", apate, was used of the seductive deception that comes from wealth (Mark 4:19), and "the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3:13). So, it's empty deceit. But what does it mean to be deceived? "Deceit" means: "to cheat, deceive, beguile - it is that which gives a false impression whether by appearance, statement or influence". This empty philosophy connives and misleads, it deceives or lies to people about what is true.
This human philosophy is described by three phrases that define its source: (1) it is drawn from human traditions, (2) it is inspired by basic principles of the world, (3) it is not according to the person and work of Christ.
Traditions of Men
This is the origin of false teaching. It's from the devices of men and not the voice of God. "Tradition" is from the Greek word paradosis, which literally means: "a handing down or a handing over". It was a word used of "betrayal", handing somebody over to authorities; a word very popular with Jews and Greeks. The later Gnostic teachers used this word (paradosis) of their own authoritative teachings, which were handed down from generation to generation. But it's basically a neutral word. It can be used positively or negatively. It's used in a positive sense in:
1 Corinthians 11:2 (NKJV) Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.
So it can be a positive word.
2 Thessalonians 2:15 (NKJV) Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
So there are good traditions. But they are the traditions of God. In our text in Colossians, what is being condemned are the "traditions of men " - Anthropos. It's of men.
We must "beware" that our traditions do not contradict the Word of God. Because if they do, they are error. I don't care if it's infant baptism; I don't care if it's the presence of Christ in the Eucharist; I don't care if it's baptismal regeneration; praying a rosary; confessing sins to a priest; or denying God's sovereignty. I don't care what it is. If it goes against the Bible, it is not of God.
So Paul tell us that these empty, deceptive philosophies depend on human tradition. They arise out of the thinking of men, find a foothold in society, and then are passed along from generation to generation so as to appear popular and widely supported. Hardly anyone dares question them, because everybody believes them. One obvious example today is the theory of evolution. Evolution is now being widely challenged on a scientific level. Many evolutionists are beginning to question Darwin's view. But it wasn't all that long ago that the theory of evolution was almost universally accepted. Nobody with any scientific standing ever raised questions about it. But evolution is only a philosophy, not a fact. Today it is being challenged by the counter-philosophy of creation, which is a scientifically supported view that offers another explanation of the universe and all material things in it. The theory of evolution rests upon human tradition and derives its longevity from widespread popular support.
As with "philosophy", there are biblical or divine traditions that have their source in God's special revelation, and human traditions; those that come from man's own ideas and theories. Human traditions may be neutral and harmless, as in the order of church worship, or policies in the conducting of human affairs, but the concern is when they, as here in Colossians and with the tradition of the Pharisees, nullify the teachings and commands of Scripture:
Matthew 15:1-9 (NKJV) Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 2 "Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." 3 He answered and said to them, "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? 4 "For God commanded, saying, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.' 5 "But you say, 'Whoever says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God"; 6 'then he need not honor his father or mother.' Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. 7 "Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: 8 'These people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honor Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. 9 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'"
The tradition of pronouncing someone's goods to be "dedicated to God" is one that was taught by the scribes and Pharisees. It tied up their funds, making them inaccessible for acts of charity at home. The point seems to be that the Pharisees, once again, took advantage of the needy, the weak, and the helpless.
In this incident, our Lord taught that men dare not attempt to use "honoring God" (Corban) as an excuse for not honoring their parents. It all sounded so pious, so religious. The money, which should have been available to help parents, was "devoted to God" with the spoken formula "Corban." How could anyone fault a child for placing God above parents?
This was a sham, a facade, as Jesus pointed out. This "tradition" of pronouncing something to be "devoted to God" was merely a means of setting aside the Fifth Commandment with pious appearances. True religion does not hurt the helpless, it helps them (cf. James 1:27).
While we're talking about tradition, can you think of an almost universally held tradition in the church today that denies the very words of the Bible? It's futurism! The tradition that says that the second coming of Christ is yet future to us.
Jesus told His first century disciples that His parousia would happen before the persecution had caused them to flee Israel:
Matthew 10:23 (NKJV) "When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
He also told them that His parousia wold happen before all of them had died:
Matthew 16:27-28 (NKJV) "For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. 28 "Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."
Speaking of the Second coming, the tribulation, the destruction of Heaven and earth Jesus said:
Matthew 24:34 (NKJV) "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.
This can't get much clearer! The generation to whom He was speaking would see all these things. Jesus said that His parousia was: "near, soon, at hand, about to be", and yet, 2000 years later, people are still waiting for it. Traditions are so strong that in light of clear scriptural evidence, people hang on to a future second coming.
It's time for a second reformation. If church tradition contradicts Scripture, we must stand on the Scripture. We must stand with Martin Luther, who before the Diet of Worms said, "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen".
Many people do not evaluate what they believe for themselves. They believe it simply because their family believed it, "My mom told me so". How you do know it is true? "I never question it". A person without healthy skepticism is vulnerable to seduction. The test question is: "Can it be substantiated by the Bible?"
So this human philosophy is: drawn from human traditions, and it is inspired by basic principles of the world.
Elementary Principles of the World
What are "the elementary principles of the world"? The noun "stoicheion" is understood in several different ways. The King James translates it: "rudiments", the NIV translates it: "basic principles", the NAS translates it: "elementary principles", the New English Bible: "elemental spirits". Well, a "stoichos" was anything in a row or series. It was used of the letters of the alphabet (alpha, beta, gamma, delta; or in our vernacular, a, b, c, d). It was used of numbers in a series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). It was used of soldiers in rank and file down a line. So what it had to do with was anything in a series. So it came to be understood in the sense of elementary things (like the ABC's of life).
The "elementary principles (Gr. stoicheion) of the world" probably refer to the religious practices the false teachers were promoting that were simply external and physical. These probably involved observance of the Law of Moses. Stoicheion is only used seven times in the New Testament. The biblical meaning of stoicheion seems to be the elements of religious training, or the ceremonial precepts that are common to the worship of Jews. Stoicheion is used in:
Colossians 2:20 (NKJV) Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations;
If you check the context of this verse, he is talking about Jewish laws:
Colossians 2:16-17 (NKJV) So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.
It you look at its use in Galatians, you again see its Jewish usage:
Galatians 4:3-5 (NKJV) Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. 4 But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
These "elementary principles of the world" seem to be some sort of Jewish legalism.
So, this human philosophy is described as: "being drawn from human traditions, being inspired by basic principles of Judaism", and it is NOT according to the person and work of Christ - "...and not according to Christ."
Col 2:8 may be summarized as the contrast between that which is "according to Christ" and
everything else - for this is how the apostle ends his warning. In whatever manner we might like
to think of "philosophy", "empty deceit", "human tradition", or "the basic principles of the
world", and however our own understanding of the phrases might cause us to interpret their
relevance, the bottom line is that they can be seen to be totally against Jesus Christ.
That's the key. It's not according to Christ. Just as grace plus anything else equals zero. You add anything to grace, you negate grace. In the same way, Christ plus anything else equals zero. You can't make any additions to Jesus Christ, or you subtract from His all-sufficiency. So everything we do, everything we are as believers in Jesus Christ must be according to Jesus Christ.
If you're a Christian, He was sufficient to save you. That's what the gospel is all about. But now is He sufficient for you in every area of your life, for every need of your life, in your relationships, in your marriage, at your job, for your every spiritual and material need? Is He sufficient? To say, "No" is to deny His sufficiency. But to say, "Yes" and glibly live your life as if you mean no is also to deny His sufficiency. He is sufficient. And if that's true, the mandate is clear. We need to teach and proclaim that truth and uphold it and encourage one another in the living of that in our lives. And we need to warn against anything, any philosophy, any tradition that is not according to Christ.
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