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Who Are You Following? (Colossians 2)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.

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Introduction: A Warning Against Heretical Teachers

From the website Sermon.com we get an interesting illustration that will serve to introduce the second chapter of the book of Colossians. It goes like this:

"A group of students at Harvard once tried to fool the famous professor of zoology Agassiz. They took parts from a number of different bugs and with great skill attached them together to make a creation they were sure would baffle their teacher. On the chosen day they brought it to him and asked that he identify it. As he inspected it with great care the students grew more and more sure they had tricked this genius.

Finally, Professor Agassiz straightened up and said, “I have identified it.” Scarcely able to control their amusement, they asked its name. Agassiz replied, “It is a humbug.”

And just like Agassiz, a person with a genuine life from God will detect a counterfeit and think, “Humbug.”

For those unfamiliar with the term humbug it means: "Deceptive false talk, or behavior.." And that is just what the Apostle Paul, in great concern for the Colossian church, is warning these dear saints about. For there were some people in this church in Colossae who were attempting to lead God's people astray.

The problem in this New Testament Church that Paul was attempting to address has now come to be known by biblical scholars as 'The Colossian heresy.' And although the church of Jesus Christ today may not be facing the same exact problems as they were experiencing back in the first century, we too have to be careful of heretics that are invading our church's who will arise and take the good news of Jesus Christ and change it to some man-made counterfeit.

Let's learn more about this heresy that the Colossian Christians faced and then see if we can take some lessons from it for the 21st-century church. In order to do this, it might be good to begin by defining the word 'heresy.'

I. Definition of Heresy

By heresy we mean an opinion or doctrine that varies from the accepted teaching, especially of a church or a religious system. In this case it is biblical Christianity. A heresy is the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a member of the Christian church.

It is not the same as an error. It is the choice to abandon the essential doctrines of the faith and embrace one's own views instead. Paul gives his understanding of a heretic in Galatians by condemning those who would pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ. To him a heresy is to “preach another gospel”, He tells us in Galatians 1:9:

"As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed."

Paul saw heretical teaching as very serious in that it leads people astray from the simple truth of the good news of salvation by grace, through faith, plus nothing and makes it into a works-based religion. And since man is unable to save himself by works, then it's not good news at all.

Now let's take a closer look at what the Apostle was fighting against in Colossae.

II. The Colossian Heresy

We talked about what was going on in Colossae in an introductory message about this book, however, now in Colossians 2 Paul is getting more into warning against the false teaching going on there, so we need to be reminded again of what the Colossian heresy is all about.

We said that Paul was most likely battling an early form of Gnosticism which became more prominent in the second century. Gnosticism is from the Greek word 'gnosis' meaning knowledge. It is a complicated system which taught that salvation could only be achieved through a secret knowledge.

They tended to say that knowledge was superior to faith and that only certain initiated and enlightened people could achieve it. Ordinary Christians could not possess this higher knowledge, according to them.

They also separated matter and spirit, saying that matter, or all that is physical, is evil and the source through which evil arises.

And since the Supreme being can have nothing to do with this, the Gnostics had to come up with a way that this evil world came into existence. For that they dreamed up what was known as a 'demiurge.' By this they meant a creator of the world distinct from God. He extended between God and the physical universe. However, this 'demiurge' was vastly inferior to God. And he was remote from the Supreme God because the Supreme Being could have nothing to do with anything physical.

These heretics denied the humanity of Christ and saw the earthly life of our Lord, along with His sufferings on the cross, as unreal.

Further, these people denied the personality of the Supreme God and didn't believe in the freewill of mankind.

And depending on what kind of gnostic beliefs one had, some taught asceticism as a way to commune with God. Asceticism, for those unfamiliar with the term, is severe self-discipline or self-denial. Others taught just the opposite. They believed that you could give in to all manner of fleshly desires.

Most Gnostics also combined certain misunderstood doctrines of Christianity with the beliefs of other religions such as oriental, Jewish and Greek viewpoints. This combining of religions to form a new belief system is called syncretism.

So you can see from all of this how these heretics could have destroyed the work that was started in Colossae and caused many in the church to go astray. In Colossians 2 we see the Apostle Paul warning these dear saints to be aware of what the false teachers were attempting to do.

III. Paul's Great Concern for the Church (2:1-7)

The Apostle begins this section by expressing his great struggles and concern that he has for the Christians in Colossae and also for those in Laodicea. Colossae and Laodicea were both cities in Phrygia, in the Roman province of Asia, ( i.e. modern day Turkey). Interestingly, the Apostle had never met these people. They were converted through Paul's disciple, Epaphras. However, he still felt a responsibility to them. It's interesting that Paul never waivered from his responsibilities toward the church's that God gave him despite having many troubles of his own, being in prison. His single-minded mission was to preach the gospel of God's grace and to see to it that the people who were converted to a relationship with Christ reached maturity in their faith.

Paul's goal for the Colossians is seen in verses 2-4. He states that his struggles for them were so that:

"their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God's mystery, that is Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."
Once again Paul talks about the mystery here that was hidden since before the foundation of the world. It includes a knowledge of who Jesus is. He, the Messiah, is God in the flesh. And, after Israel's temporary fall and setting aside, Jesus is now unifying, by faith, both Jews and Gentiles alike in one Body called the Church.

Paul addresses here the ideas of wisdom and knowledge, which were so loved by the Gnostics. He says. in verse 3 that these things are all found in Christ alone. His concern is that they don't get lead astray by these people and their seeming persuasive arguments. Even though he can't be with them physically, Paul is hoping to be able to rejoice at their discipline in the faith and that they will remain stable, not waivering from the truth found in Jesus Christ (4-5).

We see in verses 6 and 7 that the Apostle wants them to walk in the Lordship of Christ just as they had received Him. Walking is the familiar New Testament term referring to the believer's daily conduct. To walk in Christ is to live a life patterned after His life. He wants them to be 'built-up and firmly established in their faith. And if they are, then it will be a life overflowing with gratitude for what the Lord has done for them.

Next there are 4 areas that the Apostle warns the Colossian church about. They include:

  1. A Warning Against False Philosophy (2:8-10)
  2. A Warning Against Judaistic Ceremonialism (2:11-17)
  3. A Warning Against Angel Worship (2:18-19)
  4. A Warning Against Asceticism or Self-Denial (2:20-23)

Now let's take a brief look at each of these as Paul deals with them.

IV. Warnings Against False Philosophies (2:8-10)

The Apostle first talks about false philosophies. He doesn't want anyone to take them captive by these things. The term here for 'take captive' is the idea of robbery. Paul doesn't want the false teachers to rob them of the truth by becoming successful in getting the people to believe lies.

By philosophy Paul is not merely referring to the academic discipline. He is rather describing any heretical theory about God, the world or the meaning of life. The Colossian heresy was used to talk about a higher knowledge that the Gnostics had claimed to have obtained. Paul simply calls this supposed knowledge empty or worthless deception.

The Gnostics were spouting the traditions of men and the 'elementary principles of the world.' By this Paul was saying that, far from being advanced with profound knowledge, these people were spouting simplistic and immature speculations and philosophies like the rest of the Satanic world system of which they were a part.

It is only in Christ, the fullness of Deity in bodily form, in which one is made complete. Christ is the head over all rulers and authorities in the universe. He is not some lesser being emanating from the Supreme One. He is the Supreme God over all.

Salvation is not found in a greater or more full knowledge. It is rather found in Jesus Christ alone.

V. A Warning Against Judaistic Ceremonialism (2:11-17)

Next Paul starts talking about the elements in the Gnostic philosophy that was mixed with the Jewish religion. He says about Christ:

"And in Him you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ." (11).

The ritual of circumcision in Judaism symbolized man's need for cleansing of the heart. It was an outward sign of one's cleansing from sin. This cleansing now comes through faith in Jesus Christ. And believers receive a spiritual circumcision by the putting off of the sins of the flesh. Paul, in II Corinthians 5:17, says that the believer becomes a new creation in Christ Jesus.

In the same way as circumcision is spiritual, we now receive a spiritual baptism when we are saved. When the Spirit baptizes us into the Body of Christ it is a symbol of our death and burial with Christ and our raising up with Him when Jesus was raised from the dead.

We were once dead in our transgressions and were symbolically uncircumcised. But now God the Father has made us alive with Him and has forgiven us all our transgressions, or sins (12-13).

Paul goes on to say that Christ has "cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us."

Here he is talking about a handwritten certificate of debt whereby a debtor acknowledged his indebtedness. All of us owe God an unpayable debt for violating His law. Therefore, we are under the sentence of death. Paul here compares God's forgiveness of the believer to the wiping off of ink from a parchment. Through Christ's sacrificial death on the cross, God has totally erased our certificate of indebtedness. By this our forgiveness is now complete.

Jesus has taken all these things out of the way by nailing them to His cross. And He also has disarmed the rulers and authorities. By this is meant all the forces of Satan and his evil host of fallen angels. He made a public spectacle of them and has triumphed over them through His death and resurrection.

So the Colossians were no longer to allow themselves be judged by whether or not they have done all of the ceremonial practices of the Old Testament. Whether it be food, drink festivals, new moon celebrations or a Sabbath day. These are merely a shadow of what was to come later. Jesus was the fulfillment and therefore the substance of all of these things (16-17).

VI. A Warning Against Angel Worship and Asceticism (2:18-23).

Now let us just take a little more time to summarize the last 7 verses. There is much more that can be said but we'll leave it for another day. Paul takes verses 17-19 to warn the Colossians against angel worship. This is the beginning of a heresy that was to plague the region around Colossae for several centuries. And it is a practice that is forbidden in Scripture. He goes on to talk about visions that the false teachers used to justify what they were teaching. Almost all cults and false religions say that they have received some special vision or revelation that gives them authority for what they are saying. These visions are false, since Jesus is the final revelation from God the Father.

In verses 20-23 we have Paul's final warning against asceticism or self-denial as a way to be saved and gain holiness and favor with God. These are part of the principles that the world espouses. They are the teachings of men and have nothing to do with Christ.

They include things like: 'Do not handle', 'Do not taste', and 'Do not touch!'. All these things are destined to perish with use. In other words, they're temporal things, or those that won't last. They may look good. They may make a person look holy and pious. However, they are powerless to restrain sin. They are all attempts at works-salvation. And no man is able to attain salvation, or God's favor, by works. For we are sinful creatures.

Conclusion

As we look at how all of this applies to us today, we might be tempted to think that Paul is talking about a 2000 year old cult. What does that have to do with me today? The answer is that it has everything to do with all of us.

While Gnosticism may not be around today in the form it was during Paul's era, we still have elements of it in the 21st century.

For example, we may not be following the Old Testament laws and practices that some of the Gnostics were telling the Colossians to do in their syncretism or mixing up of religions. However, there are those who think that our own good deeds and efforts lead to salvation.

A recent poll, for example revealed that 36% of self-proclaimed evangelicals believe that the good deeds that they do will somehow contribute to gaining their place in heaven. This was heresy 2000 years ago and it still is heretical today.

Also, there are people in our 21st century world, calling themselves Christian, who either deny Christ's deity or His humanity. For instance, Christian Science teaches that Jesus is divine but he is not God, and that Jesus' human nature is a separate entity from the divine Christ. They say that Jesus Christ is not God, as He himself declared, but is the Son of God.

And there is the New Age Movement, which is a hodge-podge of many religions and philosophical beliefs all rolled into one. Despite minor differences, all agree that the Christ is divine, and is often regarded as a cosmic, impersonal entity. New Agers teach that this Christ-force or principle took over the body of the man Jesus with a view to helping humanity evolve spiritually. This same Christ is said to lie dormant within each person, waiting to be fully realized so that humanity as a whole may experience spiritual enlightenment.

And these are only two of the many examples of what people believe today. They are just as mixed up now as they ever were in Paul's time and that mess is influencing the people who enter our church's and the church's themselves.

Also, we.as God's people, must ever be on the alert for heresies and heretics entering our assemblies, leading His people in the wrong direction. That means we must know the truth ourselves and be able to show others when they are leaving the path God provided..

It is in God's Word, the Bible, that we find what we need to know to live successfully in this life and what we must understand in order to enter the life to come that Christ offers us. Let us love His Word, follow its precepts and teach others to do the same. And by this we will be prepared for anyone seeking to lead us or our families astray. May the Lord give us a heart for Him and for His living and powerful Word!

© 2021 Jeff Shirley

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