Colossians 2:3–23. See to It That No One Deludes You.
Key Notes: A mixture of religious, philosophical and mystical ideas. Paul's concerns match Philo's teaching. Mixing philosophy and Christianity over the ages. Infant baptism. Current religious temptations.
Paul’s main concern for the Colossians was that they were being sidetracked, or distracted from their focus on Christ. The problem is to find out what the distraction is. He made his case first by declaring Christ’s superiority over everything else in creation. He is the image of the Invisible God. Paul points to Him “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (2:3). In his second argument, He warns them specifically about distractions they are dealing with. We must try to understand what these distractions were.
An outline of the lesson:
- I. A mix of philosophy, Judaism and mysticism troubles the church
- II. One system of false doctrine and its teacher
- III. How Paul counters this false teaching
- IV. False philosophies in modern times
- V. The solution now is the same as then: cling to Christ
I. He gives them five warnings that serve to highlight the passage:
"I say this in order that no one may delude you with beguiling speech." (2:4)
"See to it that no one makes a prey of you." (2:8)
"Let no one pass judgment on you." (2:16)
"Let no one disqualify you." (2:18)
"Why do you submit to regulations?" (2:20)
The issues he mentions in this passage are a strange mixture:
2:16 issues of food and drink (B)
2:16 observance of festivals and sacred days (B)
2:18, 20 the elemental spirits of the universe (A)
2:18, 23 self-abasement (C)
2;18 worship of angels (C)
2:18 promoting visions with a sensuous mind (C)
2:21 rules against touching (presumably impure objects) (B)
2:23 rigorous devotion; being severe with the body (C)
2:23 making the appearance of wisdom (A)
Let us compile the issues into topics.
A. represents traditional culture and philosophy.
B. suggests Old Testament law.
C. sounds like asceticism or mysticism.
It appears that the Colossians are exposed to a mixture of philosophy, Jewish ceremonies and regulations (legalism), mysticism (spirits and angels), and a negative view of the human body. Was there a religion or philosophy of their times that would include these various ideas? We will look at the three topics one at a time.
A) Traditional culture and philosophy. Paul mentions the “elementary spirits of the universe" (2:8, 20). The elements of the universe were the four materials from which everything was thought to be made. Originally in the ancient world, they were thought of as sun, earth, heaven and sea, and later seen as fire, water, earth and air. [Now we have the Periodic Table of the Elements.] They thought these four materials were the stuff of which human beings were made and to which they returned after death. They saw the stars far above them, and thought they were made of superior materials, perhaps pure mind or visible gods. They believed their destiny was linked to the stars. So astrology is one of the products of thinking about elemental spirits.
Some Greek philosophers, Plato in particular, taught that matter is inherently corrupt, and therefore the body is wicked, “the tomb of the soul.” But he was not entirely pessimistic. He had a vision of greatness beyond matter and beyond our senses.
Beyond the Thing is the Idea.
Beyond the Material is the Spiritual, the pure, the ideal.
Beyond our sense perceptions, there are Forms or Concepts.
Beyond the Universe, there is God.
To illustrate the real vs. the ideal:
- Men and women may come and go, but Humanity goes on forever.
- We study the Grecian Urn and think of the ideal of Beauty behind it.
- Beyond the harbor at Fish Creek with its boat-slips is The Harbor, a final resting place where we will find refreshment for ourselves and everlasting peace from the storms of life.
B) We recognize the practices of Judaism in the mention of festivals and Sabbaths. They had kosher food restrictions. The Jews were commanded to avoid pollution from touching the dead or sick, or body fluids like blood. There were taboo animals such as the pig.
C) Mysticism is the pursuit of God through various ascetic practices like purifications and purging,and by prayer, meditation, and visions. Between us and God they thought there were spirit beings, angels, or emanations. Angels were viewed as intermediaries in the layers of Being between humans and God.
Some quotes from Philo will illustrate.
“Steps in mystical experience involve a realization of human nothingness, a realization that the one who acts is God alone and abandonment of our senses of perception. A mystic state will produce a sensation of tranquility and stability; it appears suddenly and is described as a sober intoxication.” —Philo
“Angels are emanations of the Divine working here below. They give instructions and assistance to those who love virtue.” —Philo
II. Philo of Alexandria was a contemporary of the apostles. He was a devout Jew, and an earnest student of the Torah. His is the first example of many attempts to integrate philosophy into religion. He combined Judaism, using allegorical interpretations of the OT, with Plato’s philosophy and some Christian ideas. Paul does not identify him, as is his customary approach to adversaries. Only at the end of his life he warned Timothy about two specific individuals. I Timothy 1:20
Philo taught that God built the universe from pre-existing chaotic matter through the Logos, without Himself touching matter, since it is evil. God Himself is the Good, the Ineffable and Indescribable. Philo conceived of the Logos as a created being, an intermediary between God and humans. The soul is an emanation from the body toward God, seeking salvation through secret wisdom, by mastering spiritual knowledge.
The Christians were apparently pleased and thought he was talking about the Logos of John 1:1, but he was not. He was thinking in Greek terms. So his heresy predates Arius and his errors on the Trinity by 400 years.
The life of Abraham is an example of Philo’s use of allegory in the Old Testament.
"Abram journeys through life on his way to becoming an enlightened man, a Stoic philosopher. He leaves Ur of the Chaldees, the place of sensual understanding, where he is in bondage to the material world. His vision of God takes him to Haran, which means “holes” signifying the emptiness of knowing by the senses (the holes). In Canaan God gives him a new name, signifying that he is becoming a true sage. His marriage to Sarah is a marriage to Wisdom. The fruit of his marriage is Isaac, the son of God, who needs no such spiritual development since he is perfect from the start. " (compiled from New Testament History. F.F. Bruce; Doubleday,’71; p.52, and Protestant Biblical Interpretation. B. Ramm, Wilde,’56; p.28)
The Greeks used allegories to pasteurize some of the scandalous myths of the gods. Some of the Jews applied the method to the OT Scriptures and the early Church used allegory to interpret the New Testament as well. We have renounced allegory because it obscures the meaning of the text and allows flights of fancy.
A larger excerpt of his writing will help us see what Philo thought. He mixed OT ideas allegorically with Plato’s philosophy. The fundamental doctrine propounded by Philo is that of Logos as an intermediary power, a messenger and mediator between God and the world.
"And the father who created the universe has given to his archangel and most ancient Logos a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separate that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Logos is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race. And the Logos rejoices.... saying "And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and you" (Num. 16:48); neither being uncreated as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties." (Her. 205–206).
"When speaking of the high priest, Philo describes the Logos as God's son, a perfect being procuring forgiveness of sins and blessings: "For it was indispensable that the man who was consecrated to the Father of the world [the high priest] should have as a paraclete, his son, the being most perfect in all virtue, to procure forgiveness of sins, and a supply of unlimited blessings" (Mos. 2.134).
Philo transforms the Stoic impersonal and immanent Logos into a being who was neither eternal like God nor created like creatures, but begotten from eternity. This being is a mediator giving hope to men and who "was sent down to earth." God, according to Philo, sends "the stream of his own wisdom" to men "and causes the changed soul to drink of unchangeable health; for the abrupt rock is the wisdom of God, which being both sublime and the first of things he quarried out of his own powers." "After the souls are watered they are filled with the manna which "is called something which is the primary genius of everything. But the most universal of all things is God; and in the second place is the Logos of God"
(LA 2.86). Through the Logos of God men learn all kinds of instruction and everlasting wisdom (Fug. 127–120).
The Logos is the "cupbearer of God ... being itself in an unmixed state, the pure delight and sweetness, and pouring forth and joy, and ambrosial medicine of pleasure and happiness" (Somn. 2.249). This wisdom was represented by the tabernacle of the Old Testament which was "a thing made after the model and in imitation of Wisdom" and sent down to earth "in the midst of our impurity in order that we may have something whereby we may be purified, washing off and cleansing all those things which dirty and defile our miserable life, full of all evil reputation as it is" (Her. 112–113). "God therefore sows and implants terrestrial virtue in the human race, being an imitation and representation of the heavenly virtue" (LA 1.45). From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy "Philo".
III. Now let us read (re-read) the chapter in Colossians as if Paul were addressing people who were influenced by Philo’s thinking.
2:4–7 "See to it that no one delude you with beguiling speech." In Christ are hidden all the the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. The beguiler’s teachings have a little truth and a good deal of fine-sounding spiritual talk that is easily accepted if the Christian is not grounded in Scripture. The antidote to the beguiler is firmness of faith in Christ, being rooted, grounded and established in the faith. This suggests that the Church at Colosse was important in the defense against false teaching.
2:8–15 The threat of philosophy is empty deception. An example is Philo’s teaching that the Logos was a created being through whom God made the universe. Paul has already announced Christ as the Image of the Invisible God and the Creator of all. (Col.1:15–20). Here Paul counters Philo’s Logos with the statement that Jesus is indwelt by the whole fullness of deity, and that He is the head of all authority. He is not a created being, inferior to God the Father.
While Stoic philosophy would say that humans may subdue their fleshly passions by their own efforts, Paul teaches us that in Christ our sinful flesh was cut away in a circumcision made without hands. Although at one time dead in sin, we were united with Him in burial of the old life (baptism), and made alive with Him. He forgave us and canceled the OT Law’s legal demand on us, pinning it to the Cross. The Cross, although it was seen as a victory of the powers of darkness, was Christ’s public triumph over them. We will not find salvation by special knowledge. Christ does the saving work in us by faith.
Paul uses four “with” words in this chapter to emphasize our union with Christ:
Buried with Him. 2:12
Raised with Him . 2:12
Made alive with Him. 2:13
Knit together. 2:19
(For a complete collection of the “with” words explaining our union with Christ, see notes on Rom.6:1–11)
2:16–23 They should not be judged on food or festival which foreshadow Christ. Observance of these holidays is no longer significant. Tthe Day of Atonement, and Pentecost and the year of Jubilee foreshadow Christ in various ways but we celebrate His birthday, Cruficixion, Resurrection and Ascension.
Being disqualified is being called out of bounds.
Self-abasement is demanded if the body is evil.
Worship of angels is necessary if we are not worthy to address God directly. We know that angels were involved in the giving of the Law (Heb.2:2) and those who saw angels were tempted to worship them (Rev.19:9–10) but were forbidden.
Visions may come to those initiated into the mysteries, those with secret knowledge. These visions belong to religious people who feel spiritually superior, puffed up in their sensuous minds. Visions and angels are proclaimed by many false religions, but we are to hold fast to Christ and be bonded to Him.
2:20–23 If they have renounced the philosophies that depend on the elementary spirits, they should no longer be bound by the rules of Stoic or Platonic philosophers. Excesses of devotion, ascetic punishment of the body, and self-humiliation appear spiritual, but don’t “work”. They do not subdue the flesh. Christ gave us the means of subduing the flesh.
It appears that the Colossians were being distracted by a complex false religion. These ideas were loosely connected to the truth, popular in society, and quite fluid. They pulled Christians away from Christ. Paul exhorts them to cling to Christ. The Gnostic movement of the second century was an even more popular and wide-spread threat to the Church.
The mention of circumcision and baptism in the same sentence (2:11,12) has been used by Christians since the early church as an argument for infant baptism. Many Christians believe that infant baptism is the NT ritual that replaces the OT rite of male infant circumcision. But Paul interprets circumcision in the spiritual sense of getting rid of the flesh, showing its fulfillment in Christ. Baptism, on the other hand, is a symbolic burial in union with Christ also discussed in Romans 6:1–11 and it is available to men and women. They represent different truths. They are not analogous rituals.
- Philo borrowed philosophy from Plato and the Stoics to integrate with Judaism. That created a false religion. *Augustine tried to integrate Plato’s philosophy into Christianity. Some have said that Plato was Christianity 400 years in advance. I have heard a religious teacher say that neo-Platonism is Christianity. It is not.
- Aquinas incorporated Aristotle’s philosophy into his arguments for Christianity.
- Evolution as a world-view interprets Christianity as an ideology drifting toward atheism.
- In the 20th Century Bultmann, Tillich and others integrated existentialism into their theologies.
- The open-ness of God is liberation theology plus Arminianism taken to its logical conclusion.
So through the ages, Christian thinkers have tried to harmonize philosophy with Christian truth. We believe that "all truth is God's truth", so the effort to integrate the best work of reason should enhance our Christian understanding. However, these attempts to reconcile Theology with Philosophy are widely seen to have failed in spite of good intentions. Reason and Logic usually fail when driven to their extremes.
What are the distractions that we must deal with? The philosophy of our age is materialism / scientism. People who work in science are constantly tempted to make accommodations and compromises with Biblical truth. They need our prayers.
We are all exposed to false ideas, some of them organized religions to which Christians are peculiarly vulnerable: Unity, Church of Later Day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, The Way International, etc. The critical question to ask any of these proselitizers is "Tell me more about Jesus, more than I already know."
We are tempted by materialism and wealth, which is not so much a religion or philosophy as a life-style. And we are constantly distracted by new religious thought- -questions about the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. The discovery of Gnostic scriptures (the Nag Hammadi library) has again made us question again who Jesus really is. Should we read The Gospel of Thomas? The Gospel of Judas? People wonder if the second century Gnostics were right after all. Yoga is also very popular and draws the unwary into Hindu philosophy. Karate draws the student into Zen Buddhism.
The materialism of our age makes for some outrageous claims.
“The Universe is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.” --Carl Sagan. Nova. Public TV. there is no God in his universe.
“Understanding your inner fish”. We are supposedly plagued with genetic problems that may have been useful to the fish from which we evolved. Wisconsin State Journal, front page, 2/25/08. We descended from fish? We were not created in the image of God, says this writer
“Seeking God in the Brain”. God is supposed to be nothing more than the expression of our religious feelings, which like other feelings of love and fear, have an organic basis in the brain. New England Journal of Medicine. 1/3/08. There is no God, only brain-centered religious emotions.
Imitate the gentle Bonobo apes, that would rather make love than fight. Nat’l Geographic Special TV. We descended from apes and should learn from them? We descended from the apes and should learn from them.
V. How are we to counter our culture? We learn from our teachers and study the Scripture diligently. We cling to Christ, our Creator, Mediator, Savior, Guide and Friend. We learn from Him. We imitate Him. We want to become like Him.
P.S. These studies on Philo are not reflected in the eight commentaries that I have access to. The studies on Philo are as far as I know “new” and like all new things, therefore suspect. ‘No syncretistic religion has yet been discovered which had this blend of things pagan and Jewish, nor is this a mere accident of our limited historical knowledge, since it is in fact difficult to conceive of even the possibility of such a blend.” (The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon. N.T .Wright; IVP,’86, p.24)
However, this interpretation is in harmony with evangelical doctrine and Paul’s teaching. For this reason it is not to be feared. It simply offers a better fit to explain the spiritual struggles of the Colossians.