We’ve been watching a series lately called “Inventing Anna”. It the semi true story of a con-artist who convinced lots of wealthy people in New York that she was an heiress and managed to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from them and others without them having any idea of the danger they were in. Clearly they weren’t expecting someone to lie so effectively and when you’re unaware of danger you’re much more vulnerable than when you’re looking out for it. And that unawareness of danger is the crux of the story.
It’s also the crux of the situation into which Paul writes this letter. The people in Colossae were in a dangerous situation but they didn’t realise it. The false teachers sounded so plausible. So Paul writes to warn them, and to remind them how they were taught to live the Christian life.
He begins with three warnings, then he gives three principles, then he sums it all up, in 3:1&2 with an overriding principle for Christian living, “Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
So what are the warnings he gives?
- Don’t be taken captive
His first warning is in v8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” So why does he talk of them being taken captive by these false teachers we’ve been hearing about? Perhaps it was a reminder that what Christ had done for them was to free them from the bondage of sin. And now they’re in danger of being taken captive again. How? Through “philosophy and empty deceit”, “human tradition”, “the elemental spirits of the universe”. There’s a combination here of human invention and the influence of spiritual forces that are opposed to Christ, which is what I take him to mean by the elemental spirits of the universe: those spirits whose aim it is to oppose the work of God.
So how does he refute this false teaching? Look at vs 9&10: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.” There’s a lot to unpack in that short statement isn’t there?
First he emphasises the full deity of Christ. Think for a moment what deity means to the Christian. It means the creator of the universe. It means the great “I AM”, who is from the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. It means the King of kings and Lord of lords. It’s all those things we looked at 2 weeks ago in ch 1. So when Paul says “in Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells”, that’s what he’s talking about.
It seems there were some people in Colossae who were suggesting that Jesus was just another prophet. Sure, he was a great teacher, but no more. Perhaps even his rising from death was being played down, because, after all he was only human. As I said in the first week of this series there was also the suggestion that bodily existence was incompatible with spirituality. That flesh and spirit were opposed to each other. So either Jesus was truly human but not God or truly divine but not really human. If the latter were true then maybe he hadn’t really died. So Paul’s second point is that: “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” In fact this seems to be an important part of Paul’s argument throughout the letter: that it was in the body, or the flesh, that God has made himself known to us and redeemed us.
Thirdly, the Colossians, as believers in Christ have come to fullness in Christ. If that’s the case then why would you need other ways to reach the heights of spiritual experience? That would certainly fit with the warning about empty philosophies and human traditions. There may be no end of traditions and techniques for achieving spiritual experience but this sort of philosophy overlooks the message of the gospel, that Christ being in us and us being in Christ means that we’ve already entered into all the fullness of God. If someone tells you that going on a retreat or fasting or following some other spiritual discipline will bring you closer to God they haven’t understood this basic element of the gospel. You are in Christ and Christ is in you. You can’t get closer to God than that. Those spiritual disciplines may be useful for other reasons but not for that, so don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
Finally, he says Christ is the head of every ruler and authority. It seems that some of these false teachers were arguing that we needed to go through certain spiritual powers in order to come to Christ. We find more of this in v18, where there are some who insist on self-abasement and worship of angels, who dwell on visions, who are puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking. But Paul reminds them that Christ is head over every ruler and authority, secular and spiritual. And Christ is in us. We’ve received fullness in Christ and Christ is head over all, so we don’t need intermediaries like angels or saints in order to have our prayers heard by God.
So a picture begins to emerge, of teaching which sets up rules and techniques for achieving spiritual heights and looks to angelic or spiritual intermediaries for communicating with God and in so doing ignores the teaching of the gospel that Christ has done everything necessary to bring us to God.
Added to all that it seems there was also an element of Jewish teaching coming in. The sort of teaching that suggested that these Gentile Christians really should be circumcised if they wanted to be the real thing; who suggested that they really should follow the rules and regulations that God had set down for his people, particularly those concerning foods and festivals, Sabbaths and fast days, etc.
He says “In Christ you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ.” Do you remember what circumcision was all about? It was meant as the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, between God and his people. It was an outward, obvious sign, to the males at least, that their relationship with God was different from other nations; that they’d put behind them the worship of other gods and were a nation dedicated to the Lord. But now Christ had come and all that was old hat. Here’s how Jeremiah had foretold it: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer 31:31-32 NRSV) You see, we don’t need an outward reminder because God’s law, his new covenant, is written on our hearts. We’ve been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God. We’ve been given God’s Spirit to dwell within us, to remind us of what God wants us to be. The power of the law to condemn us has been cancelled, our record erased, set aside, nailed to the cross. Everything has changed.
Can you see how futile this sort of teaching is? Yet we still see it all around us. People who look to spiritual powers apart from Christ; who fear them, who try to use them to contact the spirit world; people who think we can get closer to God by using particular spiritual techniques; people who fail to recognise the power of the cross, or the centrality, the pre-eminence, of Christ.
- Don’t let them condemn you.
Of course the result of this emphasis on rules and regulations for spiritual living is that it’s so easy to be condemned if you don’t follow the rules. So Paul says: “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Again, these people make the mistake of taking OT rules and regulations and reading them as absolutes. But what they miss is that these things were only a shadow of what was to come. When Christ comes they find their fulfilment.
But the trouble is, most Christians, most people in fact, are by nature confirmed legalists. We actually like the idea of rules. It’s much simpler to organise your life if you know what the rules are. That’s why diet programs are so popular. Because people prefer to be told what they can or can’t eat rather than having to work it out for themselves. This is particularly a problem for Christians who listen to sermons regularly. Imagine I preach a sermon on prayer, and sometime during the sermon I hand out a prayer list and suggest you could put it on your bedside table and pray through it each morning as you get up. The natural inclination of some would be to take that and make it a rule. So they go home and get out the blue tack and stick it on the side of the bedside table, and begin using it every morning. But with what result? Well, more prayers are said, possibly. That would be a good thing. But then they begin to feel like they’re doing well as a Christian. Their righteousness meter begins to rise. Or they forget or are too busy one morning and they start to feel guilty; feel like they’ve failed. That’s the trouble with people who set up rules for Christian living. All the rules do is provide a basis for judging others - or feeling guilty. What’s more, as we go down to v23, although these rules we set up may seem to be wise, they in fact don’t help us restrain our sinful urges. The only thing that will do that is the presence of Christ within us.
- Don’t let them disqualify you.
Finally, there are those who would disqualify you from being a member of Christ’s body. These are the people who have a certain enthusiasm about their faith. They always have great stories to tell about their spiritual experiences, or about their victories over sin, or their great spiritual insight, perhaps even messages from the Lord. But the mistake they make is to fail to recognise the body of Christ. What matters in the Christian life is not the experiences you have or the victories, or the insights, but whether you’re connected to the head, that is to Jesus Christ. Paul expands on that theme elsewhere of course, particularly in 1 Cor 12 where he points out that there’s a whole range of gifts, corresponding to a whole range of parts of the body. No-one can disqualify you simply because you don't conform to their particular model of Christian experience. That would be like the hand telling the foot it didn’t belong because it wasn’t a hand. No, your qualification for being part of the body is that you have a connection with the head from whom the whole body grows with a growth that comes from God.
Well, those are three dangers for Christians, but let’s think about the three principles Paul gives for living the Christian life? In each of them we find a statement about who we are and an encouragement to live that way.
3 Life Principles
- As you received, so live
He says, (v6) “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him.” What does receiving Christ mean? Well, it means freedom: from guilt, from slavery to sin, freedom to grow and be changed. The exact opposite of what these false teachers were offering. It means an experience of Christ’s presence with us every day. It means a sense of joy and acceptance, of being loved. Most of all, it means following Christ as Lord, as our head, as having supremacy over all things (1:18).
- As you were rooted, be built up.
It’s not enough to say you accepted Christ some time ago. It’s not enough to simply be rooted in Christ. We also need to grow in him. And it’s no use being rooted in Christ but then trying to grow through some other philosophy or human tradition. Our growth has to be from the Head because that’s where God’s power to grow comes from.
- As you were taught, be established, abounding in thanksgiving.
Again, don’t leave the fundamentals behind in order to achieve some new spiritual high. Keep on going back to what you were taught so your faith can be established. That is, so it will be firm, unshakable. This is a call to a deeper understanding of your faith. You see unless you understand your faith, unless you know your Bible, you won’t be able to discern the truth or otherwise of what people teach. Unless you know what the NT says about the Sabbath or the OT regulations on food or worship, and unless you understand the OT background to them, you won’t be able to work out whether or not those regulations still apply. So be established in the faith you were taught, and the result will be overflowing thanksgiving as we realise how Christ has fulfilled all that OT law and brought us into the very fullness of God’s presence.
This is all summed up in 3:1&2: “if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” So don’t be led astray by worldly wisdom. Don’t be taken captive by human inventions or mythologies. Don't allow yourself to be judged, or worse still, to be disqualified according to human rules. Rather look to Christ, seated at the right hand of God, and remember that in Christ you’re there as well. If you’re at God’s right hand with Christ, no-one can disqualify you. If you’re at God’s right hand with Christ you have all the motivation you need to grow as a Christian, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.