Colossians 2: Competing Voices
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One route we could take with this teaching is: “Contrasts with Christ”
Taken captive to philosphies vs. Christ (v.8)
Letting people act as judge in matters which are a shadow of Christ (v. 16, 17)
Taking a stand on your own visions vs. holding fast to Christ (v. 18, 19)
Submitting to decrees vs. freedom with Christ (v. 20-23)
But I think we’ll take this second route:
Who are you listening to?
In this passage, which is kind of long, it stretches all the way to the end of this chapter, Paul is addressing the question of who you are listening to. Because Paul basically sees the world of ideas and loyalties as kind of a competition. And he knows that Christ, God, is not the only player. There are countless ideas and values and lifestyles out there competing for our ears.
And Paul is going to take some of them on as he goes through this passage.
Things which have appeal
Philosphies and traditions of men (v.8)
He says first of all, “See to it that no one . . . ”
I think the idea here is that there are many philosophies that are very enticing and they call for people’s allegiance. And Paul is saying that often, they are in direct contradiction to Christ himself.
First, I want to clarify the reason Paul is so down on philosophy and what he calls here, “empty deception.” The reason is that philosophy is inadequate to address the questions they were dealing with.
The questions they were addressing were not whether or not there was a God. Or, whether or not there is such a thing as morality. They already believed all that. The questions they were now addressing were “How should I live my life?” and “What are the various moral standards I should have?”
And there is a real problem with philosophy when we try to address these more specific questions. It has to do with what we discussed last week. Our minds are so nimble and adept at backing things up, we are more likely to arrive at something we prefer than something that is actually true.
The legitimate task of philosophy is to probe the issues of whether there is a God or not. And to ask questions about our origins. Of course, philosophy is also concerned with analyzing how we think and communicate.
So, the point of philosophical speculation is to address some of the basic, more general questions. And I think we can go quite far on these kinds of issues. For example, we can talk about whether a God exists. We can use arguments like the “causal argument” . . .
But, even if we arrive at the fact that there is a God, that still doesn’t tell us what kind of a God he is. It doesn’t tell us what he has in mind for us. It doesn’t tell us a lot of the real practical issues that we wonder about.
So, philosophy is incompetant to deal with the practical, day to day stuff. You might think, “What else is there? If philosophy doesn’t deal with the question of morality, what is beautiful, etc., then what does?!”
Example: If you were going to take a class on ethics down at OSU, what department would handle it? The philosophy department! Even if it is in the business department, usually a philosophy professor will handle it. If you were going to discuss what is beautiful, or what is meaningful . . .
And yet, here we are saying that, actually, philosophy is not competant to handle those questions.
And the reason? Paul, in this passage, actually gives us some insight as to why this is. He points out that, when it comes to how to live, all we really have to go on are what he calls here the “tradition of men and the elementary principles of this world.” That’s what really guides our thinking in these matters.
And the tradition of men, and the elementary principles of this world are woeful standards to go by–just terrible.
Everybody is a philosopher
Let me point out, before we get much further here, everybody is a philosopher. Everybody has a philosophy, or combination of them, that he lives by. And this fact is true, whether we realize it or not!
Example: Consider the man who says, “I’m no philosopher! Philosophy is for sissies!” Well, the philosophy that this man holds is evident from what he is saying: “Brute force, or strength, or deeds, is the greatest value!” “The one who is strongest is best.” “The one who does, is greatest.” And that is a philosophy!
Example: Consider the guy who says, “I’m no philosopher! Philosophy is for people who can’t hack the real world!” Once again, that man has a philosophy. And it is something like this: “The greatest good is to go out and conquer or excell in the world of business, or the world of sports,” or whatever this guy considers to be the “real world.” That is a philosophy.
And the problem with all these philosophies is just what Paul says, they rest on the shakey, completely unfounded grounding of the “tradition of men.”
Traditions of men
When he says “tradition of men,” he is refering to just the standard way people think. These are the values and judgments that humans have always had. And they include such things as brute force, the ability to deceive, the ability to seduce, and things like these.
I hope you realize, in our world, values and ideals come, not from what is right and good and beneficial to all. Values come from whoever is strongest, whoever wins, whoever has the money to promote them.
They seem altruistic
Now, on the one hand, when it comes to living my life, we could say that the traditions of men are also things like justice, mercy, opportunity and love. Right? Isn’t this what we would tend to think?
Example: If we were to pass out a survey right now, and ask, “What values do you think are the greatest?” We would definitely get an answer like this . . .
But the truth is . . .
But, that’s not the issue. The issue is, “What do I do when it come down to it? What do I chose to do when the question of some moral dilemma comes up?”
Example: Here I am running a store, and the competition is losing because my deals have been pretty irrisistable. And it’s not just my deals either, my advertising and marketing strategy has been making him look pretty silly. Well, things get so bad at one point that it will come down to this other guy going out of business and losing his house and home! Do you think at that point I would opt for the value of mercy or justice? Heck no! That’s the whole goal of what I’ve been doing!
In this case, as in many, the personal value of greed wins out over the hyper-idealistic value of mercy. And we could tell hundreds of stories like this.
Example: On an individual basis, here I am in love with some girl, we’re dating, and then along comes this other girl, who is better looking and has lots of other qualities too. At that time, do you think I would opt for the idealistic values of “faithfulness” and “honesty”? Heck no! I’ll go for the personal values of enjoyment and something better for me!
And that’s the way we are with thing after thing. The tradition of men is self first.
Example: You want to know what I hate? I’ll tell you what I really hate. It’s when a movie star, or some celebrity comes along and says, “I want to give $5,000 to the homeless! And I want to have them all over to my house for dinner! But the fact is, he just made $30,000,000 that year alone! What is really being said here? What is really being said here is, “I love my money! I will not part with it. But I will, out of guilt or whatever, throw a few pennies to the needy.”
But the rest of us buy it! We think that’s the way we really are. “Buck! Didn’t you see `Hands Accross America!?’ Didn’t you see `Live Aid!?'”
No, it’s not the way we really are, and I think we will be better off if we face it. Each one of us lives on the principle of “self first.” And we are willing to defend that principle, even if we have to murder.
And if you don’t really believe that, it may be because you just haven’t had it tested yet.
Elementary principles of the world
It’s the same idea with the “elementary principles of the world.” Things like greed, violence, and the abuse of power are the real things that make the world tick.
The need for revelation
That’s why it is, then, that the Bible insists that we can’t trust our intuition, our philosophy, or anything that originates from our own selves. Because we come up with notions that please our own selves.
So, when it comes to living life, how to find fulfillment, how to get along with people, what values to have, any of the particulars, Paul is saying we need to turn to Christ. That is, we need to turn to God himself–as it says in the next verse: “In Him, the fullness of diety dwells . . .”
Jesus said, “I came to give people life! And I came to give it to them more abundantly than they’ve ever had it before.”
In another place he said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and I will satisfy.” He is saying that we have needs, he knows how to take care of them. He is saying that we have pains, he is willing to take care of them.
We listen to everything else
But let me tell you what the problem is: The problem is that we will listen to everything else. We will listen to anything else but Jesus Christ, who is God himself.
I know how it is. I know just how willing we are to listen to things. We will listen to the ideas of some completely screwed up rock singer–who’s life is a mess, who can’t even hold on to one friendship, who would lose his whole identity if he wasn’t popular and rich–we will listen to that mere human before we will listen to Christ! I know, I’ve done it!
Example: Before I decided to get into Christ, one of the groups that was kind of popular was BTO. And they had the song, “Taking Care of Business.” It was about how everybody fretted about for nothing. And he was set because he was self-employed and hardly had to work. I thought, “Yeah! That’s it! What am I doing working so hard?” And I decided to make money from selling drugs and stolen goods, anything that was easy!
“These guys must know what they’re talking about, they’re on the radio!”
We will listen to teachers, who again, are merely human. We will listen to our parents, and the values they impressed on us. Some of them may be good, but who is to say? We’re talking about one human’s opinion against another.
And Paul is saying, “Isn’t it about time we started to listen to Christ, who is the fulness of diety in bodily form?”
Religious rituals (v. 16, 17)
Paul goes on to another thing that was very attractive in v. 16. He says, “Let no one act as your judge in respect to . . .”
Here it appears they latched onto the religious rituals prescribed in the Old Testament. And if you are not familiar with these, I can’t familiarize you now. Because there are about 600 of them. What they were, in short, were a bunch of rituals and laws that God gave the people of Israel. But they had an instructive purpose. They were designed to teach the people that one day, God would come in person and remove the sins of the world.
Example: One of them was the killing of a lamb . . .
So Paul says these things are only shadows of Christ himself. They pre-figured J.C. But now that he has come, they actually stand in competition with him.
Example: It would be like falling in love with the preview to a movie, and feeling like you never needed to go to the actual movie because the preview is so awesome. A movie producer, not to mention the financial backers, would be pretty put out if everyone decided that the little teaser they put out was so great that nobody went to the movie.
Example: It would be like those teasers they put at the beginning of A Current Affair, “Nude Dancers Arrested in Florida” . . .
I’m not so sure this is a big problem today, so we won’t dwell on it.
Personal visions (v. 18)
Look at the third competing voice is in v. 18. He says that they get into self-abasement and the worship of angels. But note where they are getting their ideas from: their own visions.
This is a real popular means of religious knowledge. Always has been, and still is today. People feel like some kind of experience, where you have a vision or hear a voice, has got to be the best way to find God.
And yet Paul is saying that this is the most shakey kind of ground to stand on. He says that to take a stand on visions and feelings we have gotten in our own heads is to be inflated without cause by a fleshly mind!
What’s weird about this whole idea of seeing a vision, or feeling like God told me something. Ironically, many people will feel more sure about this than anything else! It’s like, “If God told me, then it must be true! God told me!”
And when someone else is saying, “God told me . . .,” you have an instinctive reaction, “Oh, well, I guess I’d better not question that!”
Example: I’ve had this line pulled on me in arguments before! What am I supposed to say?! “Well, God’s wrong!”
I guess I just don’t know how we can be so confident about that kind of stuff.
Example: How do I know that what I am sensing is, in fact, God? Or is it my own greed? Or my pride talking?
And then you ask people that question, “Well, I just know!”
That’s why I think Paul says that people who take their stands on visions they have seen are inflated in their own egos. It amounts to a confidence in the self that we could only call an inflated ego.
The alternative, is to do what Paul says here, “Hold fast to the head.” What he is refering to is the notion that Christ is the head, and we are the body. In other words, we should take our direction from Christ himself. And fortunately, the words of Christ, and the life of Christ, is recorded for us in the Scriptures . . .
Prohibitions (v. 21)
Then, finally, these Colossians were listening to a message that has been known for centuries to be totally effective: guilt manipulation. Some folks were coming out with prohibitions like, “Don’t eat this stuff, and don’t touch the other.”
I guarantee you. If you want to start a sucessful religion, then just come up with a list of the 10 most deadly and harmful things you can do. “10 things to avoid at all costs, and then you will be OK.”
This has instant appeal to human beings. Look what Paul says, “Indeed, these have the appearance of wisdom!” And the reason they have the appearance of wisdom is because of a little thing we have: a guilty conscience. Everybody has it. And if you come along and say, “This and this and this is baaaadd!” You will instantly strike a resonant chord in people’s hearts!
Example: See, I don’t know if you guys have been acustomed to listening to this kind of message. Chances are, you probably haven’t. But when guilt-manipulating preachers come on, telling you to burn your rock-records, and this kind of stuff, it’s real persuasive. It strikes a resonant chord with me! Why? Because I know I’m bad. I know I’ve got all kinds of problems. And when someone comes along and says, “It’s because you do this!” it makes sense.
I think the “do not taste, do not touch” stuff has real apeal for a couple of reasons:
For one, it sounds kind of simple. If you come along and say, “The problem is the seductive message of rock albums,” then the simple solution is to burn them!
And if you want to get a little more complex, and say, “The problem is the food you eat!” then you can fix that too!
But unfortunatley, our problem is not that simple. I’ve been there, in churches where these were the standard solutions to sin. And let me tell you something as an insider: It doesn’t work.
Isn’t that what Paul says here? (v. 23)
The stories I could tell you, they would be totally amazing. Fortunately, I don’t have to go any further than the headlines to show this kind of thing! (I don’t have to expose anyone who isn’t already exposed.)
Example: Here was one preacher recently, who taught with a vengance (I’ve heard him), on the evils of rock-music. Why? Because they have dirty lyrics, on occassion. At other times they encourage rebellion, and these kinds of things. But, at the same time, this very preacher, was hiring a prostitute, having her perform lude acts, and masturbating in front of her while he verbally abused her! All this, and he never listened to rock and roll!
Well, we shouldn’t really be surprised. Because the problem is not the things we eat, or listen to. The problem is with us. The answer of the guilt manipulators, that the problem is with this thing or that thing, is a failure . . .
Absolves us of responsibility
And along those same lines, the implication of these prohibitions is that the problem is with those substances. And that is what Paul is saying here when he points out that there is nothing with the substances themselves.
The problem is with us! We are the ones who have a moral problem.
Example: There’s nothing wrong with foods. The problem is that we are so greedy that we turn into gluttons.
Example: For a controversial issue, there is nothing wrong with drugs, or alcohol, in themselves. The problem is that when we consume them, our thought-life is completely out of control. Our emotions get out of control. And often, our behavior gets completely out of control. And what happens when any of these things gets out of control? Terrible things!
So it is, then, that the problem is with us. And the solution is, once again, Christ. Jesus Christ offers to forgive . . .
The problem is, that guilty conscience doesn’t come from the things we eat, touch, or handle. It comes from the way we are . . .