Sermon Notes 05
If you ever visit the historic city of Krakow, Poland, you will see the beautiful spire of the St Mary’s church. But you will also hear something unusual. Every day, and it’s been so for the last 700 years, a bugle sounds and is always muffled or broken on the last note.
There is a reason for this tradition. The bugler commemorates a lone man who climbed the spire during the coming invasion of the Tartar army, and signaled the impending attack. Many Krakovians were saved because of his heroic act, and on the last note of his alarm an arrow penetrated his body. The last note was muted; broken as he died.
The people of Krakow still, even in the 21st century, commemorate his sacrificial act. It reinforces to us the importance of warnings we also must heed.
Paul speaks in Colossians 1:28 “We proclaim Him, warning and teaching every man…” Warning and teaching go hand-in-hand in apostolic writing and teaching. You cannot teach well without also warning; and every warning should contain an element of teaching and pointing to what should be thought or done.
When we arrive at the latter part of Colossians Chapter 2, we find a recurring them: That of warnings. In fact, from Chapter 2:8 forward, we are in a section that emphatically warns the Colossians from some very present dangers.
Chapter 2:8-10 A warning about “hollow philosophies”
Chapter 2:16-17 A warning about insurgent legalism, probably Jewish
Chapter 2:18-19 A warning about the danger of mysticism
Chapter 2:20-23 A warning about the vanity of asceticism
So with these warnings being prevalent and repeated, the thought of this section seems to be to flesh out the content and the danger of these four main warnings.
1. A Warning About Philosophical Deception. (Col 2:8-10)
Just as every person with the capacity for thought is a theologian, (they have some thought about God, even if just denying He exists), so every person is a philosopher. Not every person is a competent or thorough theologian or philosopher, but we all stab at and wrestle with these topics in our thinking.
Properly understood, the word “philosophy” is taken directly from Greek, and is a compound word that means “the love of wisdom.” However, loving wisdom does not necessarily make one wise. Philosophers are those who “love” the discipline to an extent that they make a lifelong study of learning, reading, and seeking to assemble a philosophical system that allows them to “make sense” of life.
While Christian philosophies and philosophical thinkers do exist, the vast majority of published philosophers has been and is agnostic or atheistic in their orientation. They find themselves with the difficulty of trying to make sense of life’s challenges and realities by creating a worldview with no God in it.
This is the position that led Paul to refer to “hollow philosophies.” These are empty arguments that are not based in the most fundamental of truths: that God does exist.
One of the most popular Christian philosophical thinkers of the last century was Francis Shaffer. Dr. Shaffer wrote extensively on philosophical thought from a Christian worldview. One of his most popular books was entitled, God is There and He is Not Silent. Other titles include, The God Who is There and How Shall We Now Live? The thinking of this brilliant man still impacts schools of thought and certainly had an influence on mine.
Other thinkers, like the late Norman Geisler, Voddie Baucham, Dallas Willard and Ravi Zacharias have actively engaged in philosophical defense, debate, and writing in the Twenty-First Century. I frequently encourage young men and women with the capacity to do so to explore deepening their philosophical reading with men like these. Still others could be mentioned, but to the point, all philosophy is not “empty” and “hollow.” When it is filled with thoughts of God, and is engaged in helping us understand more deeply Who God is and how God works in the world it can be a wonderful and exhilarating subject to read.
However, most philosophical thinkers and writers (I am thinking immediately of Richard Dawkins and other 21st Century atheistic philosophers) offer up the “hollow” and “deceptive” philosophies that Paul was warning against. These are prolific in our culture, and eagerly swept up by unsuspecting minds.
Of them, one commentary summarizes:
No wonder Bertrand Russell at the end of his life, 90 years of age, the vast majority of his life, at least 70 of those years, being spent as a philosopher, his last words were, “Philosophy has proved a washout to me.” That’s a long washout, 90 years. Thomas Hobbs, the famous English atheistic philosopher who fostered materialistic psychology and what is called utilitarian morality, when he was drawing near his death said this, “I’m about to take a leap into the dark. I shall be glad to find a hole to creep out of this world.” David Hume, the deistic Scottish philosopher was an immoral man in every sense of the word, totally indecent, completely dishonest. His biographers tell us that he was a teacher of immorality, a denier of God. And his death was so tragic that his attendants at his death said he agonized to the point that he shook the entire bed and demanded that the candles be lit all night, that he never be left alone for one moment, and his lips were filled with cursing and remorse until he died.
These atheistic philosophical thinkers attempt to provide a rational and intellectual basis for their argument of unbelief in God. It seems to buttress the argument of those struggling to make up their minds that God in fact does not exist, and if you come from a position of theism (you believe in a personal God) then you must be intellectually deficient.
This position is often the first salvo fired at incoming college students in our university system today. When professors and instructors have been steeped in the “hollow” philosophies in vogue today, these streams of thought will influence or even dominate the lectures they give.
Some philosophical positions, however, have more to do with ideas that have already seeped into the consciousness of the culture. The recent postmodern movement is one such philosophical movement that has literally swept much of the world. But philosophy drives many things: political platforms, educational institutions, and even the writing of school textbooks used by our youngest children.
But one important philosophy still remains with us. That is the position of scientific naturalism, which has a tremendous impact not just on science but on cultural morality, decisions as fundamental as abortion rights, gender identity issues, sexual mores, end-of-life medical decisions and in recent times, suicide.
This position, though not brand new, holds to the viewpoint as do many of the empty philosophies of our day that God does not exist. Therefore the universe around us is the ultimate reality. One of their most prominent spokesman would say, “The Universe is all there is.” In this system of thought, the material world is all that’s real and all that matters.
That has tremendous implications in how we see the world around us, since it is ultimately drilled down to an amoral system in which people are born at random and simply cease to exist at death. The question in such a system becomes, “What is right? What is wrong? Who has the ultimate authority to say?”
Without laboring this point, it is important to note that it is imbedded deeply into our thinking in the modern west, in everything from children’s cartoon scripts to the highest levels of education, art and medicine. If this life is all there is, the implications are tremendous…and dangerous.
That is a long way around the point, but the point is we HAVE been taken captive; kidnapped; plundered by this philosophy without realizing it. It filters into our minds and out through our thinking in ways that we are not even aware.
Paul said, “Don’t be taken captive” by such thoughts. This was the threat posed by the Gnostic intellects of the day. They wanted to “take captive” the minds of the new believers with their philosophical viewpoint. And theirs was likewise a very dangerous position that reduced Christ to the level of an angel, and not even necessarily a good angel!
No wonder Paul issue such a stern and fatherly warning to these new Christ followers. “Don’t let them kidnap your thinking…and plunder your faith.” “Don’t fall prey to the traditions of men….”
Our failsafe in such situations as they faced and that we face today is an absolute assurance in and knowledge of the truth of God’s Word. We are to be “rooted” (“earthed”) and “built up” through Christ and “established on” the bedrock of His Word.
We must stay alert for those who would seek to take us captive at the point of our faith, our values, and even the heart, mind and soul of our children if we allow it! Be alert.
2. A Warning About Legalism. (Col 2:16-17)
Perhaps no problem still dominates and intimidates the church today as does legalism. Legalism essentially is the idea that spirituality can be quantified. It is an exercise in pride and judgmentalism, claiming to be able to do with our hands what God could not accomplish in us through the new birth and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
Yet there seems to be an allure to it. This is most likely because it caters to human pride. Whenever judgmentalism is in play, pride is the motivator. We judge in an effort to make ourselves seem more righteous than the one we are judging. “While God may not agree, at least I know I’m righteous and the person I am judging knows I am too!” we seem to be saying.
Legalism, inherently, is joyless. If we continually live in the “Thou shalt not” sections of Scripture without the needed balance of God’s grace, we will create a picture of Christianity that is dependent more on the efforts of man and not the blessings of grace.
Legalism demands uniformity. Unity is not uniformity. The body of Christ is rich and radiant and multi-cultural and multi-racial and multi-dimensional. To seek to reduce all of that to one style of dress, one preferred manner of speech and even the same facial expressions is to rob it of the glory God intended for His people to reflect. Legalism demands this sameness as a matter of control and “keeping score.”
Legalism results in a superficial faith. Jesus railed against those who He called “whitewashed tombs” full of “dead men’s bones.” In other words, the external appearance looked clean enough, though within there was corruption. The focus is continually on the surface with the legalist. Conformity can be enforced and even established for a little while. But what is in the heart will always be made known.
Legalism, ultimately, is judgmental. It focuses on “keeping score” of violations of law and codes of behavior and punishing failure to conform successfully. Those in a legalistic religious system continually feel judged by those who feel superior to the stragglers.
Legalism is absent of joy, evokes condemnation and judgement, and focuses ultimately on the flesh either in a congratulatory manner when law codes are kept, or in self-recrimination and judgment of others when the laws are not kept.
Christianity is certainly not unique in producing the aberration of legalism. Islam and other world religions do the same to their adherents. In some Muslim cultures around the world, a Religious Police force exists for the purpose of punishing those who violate the laws of Islam. Punishment is swift, public, and can be brutal.
Some Christians designate themselves as the “religious police” whose role is to punish those who get “out of line” in their opinion. Much of legalistic belief today comes not from those things take from Scripture, but from the opinion and “traditions of man.”
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you…” Paul warns in 2:16. He specifically addresses five issues of eating and drinking, religious festivals, New Moon celebrations, or Sabbath observances. Basically, his warning addresses “diet and days.”
This clearly contains an obvious reference to the diet taught in the Old Testament and codified by the Jews as “kosher” foods. While few Protestant believers seek to follow Jewish dietary laws, we have our own “legalistic diets” that we’ve created.
If you are serving your family anything but organic, whole grain, farm-fed, free-range, single origin foods, you are in the eyes of some, poisoning them. Now I agree there are health benefits to food not polluted by antibiotics and hormone fed. I can even get a little misty-eyed over chickens kept and fattened up in cages in which they can barely move! And I like single-origin coffee that can be traced to the point of growth and knowing the coffee farmer is getting paid well for his or her work.
But while that is true, I have never been judgmental about people who don’t pay the exorbitant costs of organic or farm-raised food. And I have been more than a little miffed over fruits and vegetables that go bad before I even have a chance to eat them, since they contain no preservatives.
So I don’t judge you for eating non-specific sourced foods or drinking coffee from a fast food restaurant. More power to you! Enjoy! But please don’t judge me when I occasionally slip in to a burger joint for a preservative-filled hamburger from a hormone-fattened cow on not-quite whole grain bread. Sometimes, you just need a good French fry!
But I visit the fresh food and farm-to-table stores enough to have encountered those who would very quickly look down on me (judge me) for doing what I just confessed to you. And they will judge you as a parent for not feeding your children the very best and healthiest foods possible.
But RIGHT HERE IN THE BIBLE it clearly states you have Paul’s permission NOT to be judged and to reject their judgmental glances or opinions regarding your dietary choices. And I’ll try really hard not to judge you either!
Paul also brought up the issue of special days. These days were designed to commemorate various aspects of the work of Christ, in the same way as the special diet was teaching God’s people about purity and holiness and the importance of abstaining from forbidden things. The Sabbath regulations pointed clearly to the Sabbath rest that God’s people would know. Lightfoot comments, “The setting apart of special days for the service of God is a confession of our imperfect state, an avowal that we cannot or do not devote our whole time to Him.”
But all of these things were a picture…a shadow of reality. Christ is that reality. When Jesus came, ALL of the law and all of the covenant requirements for holiness and purity were fulfilled in Him. “The reality, however, is found in Christ.”
I have used the image before of a man returning home after a long stay out of the country. While he was away, he only had a picture of his fiancée to remind him of her. But when he arrived, the fiancée was waiting for him. But how ludicrous would it have been for this man, now in the presence of his beloved, to continue to love her picture and kiss her picture when the person the picture represented was with him?
We would think the man was crazy! But in reality, this is exactly what those who were making their way into these early congregations were telling them. “Yes, you have the reality, which is Christ. But YOU STILL NEED THE PICTURE TO FULLY KNOW HIM AND LOVE HIM!”
To Paul’s astonishment and certainly to ours today, the believers kept falling for it! “Don’t let anyone judge you….” Paul warned. We need to be careful lest we fall into the same trap of judging others legalistically, or of being judged by them.
3. A Warning About Mysticism (Col 2:18-19)
“Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and the worship of angels….” (2:18)
Though some important translations, such as the newer CSB choose the word “condemn” instead of “disqualify” it is generally agreed that the Greek word used here, “kataBraBeuw” though very rare, carries with it the idea of “being disqualified” or “being ruled against,” rather than “condemned” which is more legal and the territory of jurisprudence. The RSV uses the word “disqualify” as well as the NIV and the ESV.
So for our comments, and to stay with the ESV translation, we will use the word “disqualify” as well. That said, I feel there are some strong reasons to see this word as stronger than that.
It is also important for us, before continuing in the textual comments, to consider the word “mysticism” in the context in which Paul used it. Christian mysticism has a long and even respected history throughout the church. Though some were Catholic in their belief system, others were not.
Mystics as people were often those who would seek to withdraw, and that fitting with their temperament would sometimes even be despondent. Many reported fits of depression and anguish of soul. The mystic was one who would intentionally seek out solitude and separation from others in an effort to seek out God.
Many would speak of deep and even rapturous experiences of long seasons of prayer and fasting, seeking the face of God. One mystic in the earlier years of the church, known as St John of the Cross, would sometimes journal and write of their experiences. His was entitled, The Dark Night of the Soul. I have heard many relate their experiences in that same dark night, and I dare say many have experienced it without quite knowing what it was or what to call it.
Others such as Teresa of Avila spoke of intense seasons of despair and depression and wrote out of her pain. The mystics were often reclusive, and did not hold official positions in the church. A man simply known as Brother Lawrence, a member of a monastic kitchen crew, wrote a small but powerful book entitled The Practice of the Presence of God.
While odd, the mystics could also be extreme in their devotion, such as Simon Stylites who separated from the world in such extremity that he lived on top of a pillar for forty years! I can’t image what would motivate this type of withdrawal, but we can’t discount his obvious devotion.
But we also must remember that Paul had his own “mystic” experience as he spoke of being taken up (“whether in the body or out of the body” he did not know) into the “third heaven” and seeing things which man should not utter. This was, literally defined, a “mystic” experience.
They all had something in common, and that was a desperation to draw closer to the God they loved and to know Jesus intimately. Their journeys were typically very inwardly focused, though some mystics would find their place in service to others in the name of Jesus while they sought Him deeply.
Whatever our opinion of them, they are acknowledged for their contribution to Christian history and devotional thought and writing. It is not such mysticism being condemned and warned against by Paul.
The mysticism Paul was confronting in Colossians was a different type of mystical approach. While the ultimate goal of this mysticism was to put its adherents in touch with God, they were offering a path different than simply knowing Jesus and having a relationship with Him.
In fact this mysticism was a toxic mix of angelology, which was a way of systematizing angelic hierarchies or rule and ascetic practices that went from abstaining from food and drink to self-abuse of the body.
The Gnostics approach made them seem to be deeply devoted followers of God, but they had created a pathway, a man-made religion involving a combination of angelology, mystical thought borrowed from eastern religious beliefs, and asceticism.
Lest we think this type of thinking has left the mindset of modern culture, I call your attention to the Bethel Church movement in California, led by Senior Pastor Bill Johnson. His wife, Beni, “co-pastors” with him.
Beni Johnson also teaches some peculiarly unorthodox views of angelology, such as that there are “different kinds of angels: messenger angels, healing angels, fiery angels” who have “fallen asleep.” In a blog post she wrote, “I think that they have been bored for a long time and are ready to be put to work.” She relates a story about one of her students at the Bethel Supernatural School of Ministry who claims God told her to go to the chapel and yell “WAKEY WAKEY!” As Johnson says,
Nothing happened for about five minutes, so [the student] turned around to cross the road to go over to a shop. As she turned around, she felt the ground begin to shake and heard this huge yawn. She looked back at the chapel, and a huge angel stepped out. All she could see were his feet because he was that large. She asked him who he was, and he turned to her and said, “I am the angel from the 1904 revival and you just woke me up.” She asked him, “Why have you been asleep?” The angel answered and said, “Because no one has been calling out for revival anymore.” (Joe Carter)
This movement has drawn tens of thousands into its teaching and experientially-oriented worship services. It gets us painfully close to the kind of angelic worship and mystical experiences promised by the Gnostics of Paul’s day.
It was the opinion of those who follow such views that a run-of-the-mill, ordinary faith with no gigantic angels being awakened was a sub-standard belief system. The Gnostics were “disqualifying” the Colossians by demeaning their adherence to Jesus Christ as the One Who is Creator of and ruler of angels. “Was Jesus asleep,” I wondered as I read the blog post quoted above? Did He require a hapless girl to shout “Wakey Wakey” to make Him willing to pour and blessing and bring revival?
How easy we are to be “disqualified” by such teaching and drawn away by incredible stories of mystical experiences (Bethel also reports an occasional unexplained dropping of angel feathers and gold dust in their services). And people flock to be a part of such sensationalistic claims.
The danger of disqualification still confronts us today. We must not allow it. IN the same passage, Paul warns us about the false “humility” of these Gnostic prognosticators. While they posed in humility, Paul calls them out for the pridefulness with which they paraded their “humility.”
The flesh is a slippery thing. We can deceive ourselves or be deceived into a pretend humility while in the same moment demonstrating the greatest pridefulness for our supposed humility.
Paul said “they take their stands on things they claim to have seen” in the mysteries…things only they were allowed to see. Paul said they were “full of wind” (literally… “puffed up” in the AV). This was the act of pretending to be “bigger than life:” larger and more important than they really were. They were “inflated to no purpose” by their carnal minds.
Rather than being “connected” in a special way to mysteries of God, Paul points out in v19 that they were in reality “disconnected” from the Head. They had “let go” of the Head, which is Christ, from which the whole body grows. The picture means they are also disconnected from the body, which is the church.
IN summary, Paul is cautioning the Colossians about following windbag, prideful, beheaded, fleshly men who claimed to know mysteries that no one else could know. These are not the people to follow, and to do so is to disqualify yourself along with them.
4. A Warning About Asceticism. (Col 2:20-23)
Asceticism has its place in church history as well as mysticism. Most ascetic practices are misguided efforts to control and constrain the appetites and desires of the flesh, sometimes in the extreme. What is forgotten by those who practiced these extremities of self-abuse is that, no matter how much we “do not touch, do not taste, and do not eat,” the flesh always finds a way of expression.
Ascetic practices in the Middle Ages involved sleeping on beds of straw, wearing sackcloth next to the skin, rigorous fasting, self-flagellation, going without sleep for days, and the list could grow. The Catholic Church has maintained some of these practices, and only in the mid-twentieth century banned some of the most extreme.
While we cannot know for certain which ascetic practices the Gnostics were advocated that the Colossians adapt, Paul puts a definitive stop to all of them with his argument from this passage: “You have died to the elements of this world.” Or as Barclay translates it, “If you have died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you keep on submitting yourselves to their rules and regulations, as though you still lived in a world without God?”
It’s important in dealing with this passage to remember that the Gnostics believed all matter was evil. Everything in this world was therefore polluted and not truly created by or connected to God. Therefore we have to get OUT of the world to find our connection with the true creator.
This then translated into practices of avoiding the things of the world, “Don’t taste, don’t touch, don’t eat” in an effort to show our determination to turn our backs on materialism. The body, being matter, needed to be controlled and abused, since it really wasn’t important anyway and is going to perish.
There is always a deceptiveness regarding man-made religious rules and man-created religious systems. They have no value in restraining the flesh, but only inflame it more. Paul himself said of the law that the more he sought to keep it, the more it inflamed him. When we try to do in our own strength what only Jesus can do for us that will always be the result.
Paul said, “If (since) you have died with Christ to the elementary principles (the ABC’s) of the world, why as if you are living in the world (under the constraint of the world’s rules) do you submit yourself to decrees…” We are not under the constraint of the world’s rules. Since we are dead in Christ, they have no power, authority, or dominance over us. We are not obliged to subjugate ourselves to them.
In Christ we are free…from ascetic practices which have an appearance of wisdom but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. The flesh will find a way, even in our religious practices, to rear its head.
Our fallen self will always prefer a way to work our way in to God’s favor than to have it bought and opened for us. The only way we can enter faithfully and completely into God’s presence is with flesh that has died. Religion continually resurrects our flesh with new ways to work, and therefore exalt our self, even at the cost of great severity to our flesh, and great sacrifice made (as long, of course, as we are being watched by others!)
Only as we have died in Christ…with Him in death, burial and resurrection…can we be pleasing to God. Only as we come, with the hymn writers verse, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Your cross I cling” as our boast will we enter the kingdom.
You will never begin with the flesh (our lost, carnal nature) and find your way to God. It is impossible, so why are you trying? Why are you giving yourself over to those who claim to have “a new revelation” or “a new way” to come to God?
Why are you seeking the favor of angelic beings, or approaching the saints or Mary or the spirits of the departed or the stars for access when it has been granted you by Jesus, if you know Him? We have already come to the pinnacle in Christ. We need search for no other way. Only in Him.
Child of God, be careful who you follow. Avoid the traps of legalism, and hollow pseudo-philosophy, and mysticism and asceticism and man-made religious systems. Only then can we relate freely to God as those who are IN CHRIST.
This passage is, according to many commentators, one of the most difficult in all of Paul’s letters to interpret. I found myself agreeing. Since we know little really of the Gnostics mystical religion, we can only deduct from what Paul wrote what they were perpetuating. Our history is sketchy at best, so the interpreter has to “fill in gaps” with some assumptions. I do not present this as the last word…just my attempt.