The Lure and Lie of Human Wisdom (Col. 2:8-10)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me to Colossians 2:8–10. The title of my sermon this morning is, “The Lure and Lie of Human Wisdom.”

In our sermon last week I mentioned that Paul had reached the end of his introductory material and now he was ready to get to work dismantling the false teaching that was threatening the church in Colossae. And we have reached that point in the letter. Verses 8–23 of Chapter 2 form the main section of this letter which was written to put an end to the false teaching and the false teachers threatening the church.

So follow along with me as I read Colossians 2:8–10.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Colossians 2:8–10 ESV)

I think now is the point where we need to talk specifics about this false teaching. So far in this series I have not given too many specifics about the false teaching, but that is partly because Paul has not given us many specifics about it. And he really does not do so anywhere in the letter. He gives us bits and pieces of information, but he never outright names it.

But from this letter we do know a few things about the false teaching. I have said before that at its core, the false teaching had reduced Christ from his rightful position as the supreme ruler over all creation to just one supreme ruler among many others (Thielman, Theology of the NT, 377). And the problem with this is that it made Christ only one of many mediators between man and God. And so it was a direct attack on the deity of Christ, because it had reduced him from being God in the flesh to just one of a multitude of spiritual beings who were mediators between God and humankind. Mediators that had to be appeased in order for things in your life to go well. And so the deity of Christ was being challenged by these false teachers and the sufficiency of Christ to provide for our salvation was being challenged as well. In other words, Jesus is not God, and Jesus alone is not your savior. You must please these other spiritual beings as well and that is going to require certain things of you.

But at the center of this false teaching was the idea that the fate of men and women are bound up in the existence of a host of spiritual powers that must be appeased through the keeping of various rules and regulations and through the observance of ascetic rituals. This teaching had both Jewish and Pagan religious elements in it.

There was the expectation that the followers of this teaching would observe certain rules concerning food and drink. And that they would keep certain festivals around New Moons and Sabbaths. There is also the mention of angel worship in verse 18 of this chapter and the need to submit to these spiritual forces who supposedly control the fate of all men and women. And Christ was being presented as one of these spiritual beings that needed to be placated. One of many.

So it is easy for us to imagine then how Christ was being reduced from his rightful position as the supreme ruler over all creation and the Lord of our redemption to someone of a lesser status. And we can imagine how this type of teaching was very dangerous for the church in Colossae.

And because I know some of you are probably hearing me say these things this morning and are wondering what in the world this has to do with us, let me tell you that I have witnessed this exact thing happen within a church before. A false teaching with similar emphases.

In the incident I witnessed and was a part of dismantling, a couple of men got off in the weeds with regard to the deity of Jesus Christ and the need to continue to observe many of the Old Testament Jewish practices that Christ fulfilled. There were other things involved as well, but at the core and most seriously, they were questioning the deity of Jesus. And these men were able to draw others into this teaching, including a young man in our youth group who was shaky in his faith to begin with and who may be forever confused now because of this teaching. And they even lured in someone on the church staff who eventually lost his job over it. We even heard that it had made its way into another big church in town and we had to notify the pastor there and he had to deal with it in a similar manner. It was a mess and it was not fun. Very stressful, particularly because one of these individuals was a close friend.

And the main proponent of this teaching was a deacon and a Sunday School teacher. And he was even close family friends with the pastor and his wife. This ended up causing family problems for those involved. It affected wives and children and maybe even the eternal destiny of some involved. But when the deity of Jesus is being questioned, we cannot play games with it. No matter how painful it may be, it has to be dealt with.

So I don’t want you to hear about this type of stuff and think it doesn’t happen today, because it does. And it is serious and it has to be dealt with swiftly because it will spread like gangrene and destroy a church. And this was Paul’s concern for the otherwise healthy church in Colossae.

The Love of Wisdom

But just how is it that people get caught up in this type of thing? What was it about this false teaching in Colossae that made it seem plausible? Well Paul identifies the primary draw of this false teaching by using the word “philosophy”. You will notice in verse 8 that Paul is giving a warning to the Colossians not to get caught up or “captured” by a certain philosophy.

Now philosophy is an interesting word. It is interesting because it comes to us straight from Greek. The Greek word is φιλοσοφία. And this word is made up of the joining together of two greek words you might be familiar with: φιλέω (phileo) and σοφία (sofia). φιλέω being one of the biblical words for love. This word is also used in the city name “Philadelphia” which is known as the city of brotherly love. Again, it is one of the New Testament words we translate as “love”. And in the word “philosophy” it is joined together with the word σοφία which means wisdom. And Sophia is a familiar name for women even in our country today. Who wouldn’t want to be named “wisdom”?

So we can deduce from this that the word φιλοσοφία which we translate as “philosophy”, contains the idea of “The Love of Wisdom.” The problem with most philosophies though is that the wisdom they contain is human wisdom and not divine wisdom. And that is what Paul was warning the Colossians to beware of. They were to beware of getting caught in the trap of those who would entice them with this human wisdom or philosophy, which we see in verse 8, Paul calls empty deceit. And he is able to call it empty deceit because any philosophy of living that promotes anything other than Christ as the mediator between us and God, or promotes something in addition to Christ as being the means to obtaining a full and happy life, is an empty philosophy.

But even today people are lured into all sorts of false religions and philosophies and ways of life that are contrary to the Christ-Centered Gospel. And that is because of what I want to look at first this morning which is The Lure of Human Wisdom.

The Lure of Human Wisdom (v. 8a-c)

Paul says at the beginning of verse 8, “See to it that no one takes you captive…” The idea here is of someone being carried away or taken away against his or her will. It is being kidnapped. The false teaching Paul was worried about apparently had some type of real allure about it. It was enticing. It appeared to offer a special wisdom that was necessary for a full spiritual life. And there were apparently some of the Colossians who could not resist it.

It is sort of like fishing. I know several of you like to fish and when we fish we use lures. And the idea of a lure is to present something that looks really good to the poor fish who are just looking for a nice meal. We want it to look as real as possible so the fish approach it not expecting what is coming next. But when they take the bait, they get a mouth full of hooks and then they are captured. What looked so good at first, turned out to be the absolute worst thing in the whole lake they could eat.

And the false teachers were doing much the same thing. They had wrapped their lies up into a nice pretty package that was irresistible for some people. Remember these people were from a culture where they were really superstitious and paranoid about these spiritual powers they had to please. And all of a sudden these teachers would come along with a solution and it was very attractive. And Paul knew it and understood it and was trying to protect the Colossians from being seduced by it.

But there were some glaring problems with this teaching. And these are the things Paul was trying to expose.

Human Tradition

The first thing we see about the Lure of Human Wisdom is that it is based on Human Tradition. “The Philosophy,” which incidentally is most likely the name these false teachers had given their teaching, was based on the tradition of humans and not the commands and wisdom of God. These are teachings and traditions that have been passed down from teacher to disciple, from parent to child, from generation to generation for years and years. If you have ever studied philosophy you know that is how it works. It is often one person’s ideas getting passed to another person and refined some and passed down to someone else. And Paul’s world was full of philosophers and philosophies. And some of the Colossians were being lured away by a particular philosophy that was attractive to them.

The truth is that we humans think pretty highly of ourselves and think pretty highly of doing things the way we have always done them and the way everyone else does them. Even if this means neglecting the commands of God, we like to believe what is popular and what people have always believed and what the culture tolerates and accepts.

Jesus ran into this same problem. Matthew 15 records the story of Jesus being approached by a group of Jewish leaders who wanted to know why Jesus and his disciples were content to disregard longstanding Jewish traditions. They asked him…

“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” [Jesus] answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:2–3 ESV)

Brothers and sisters, anytime a human tradition is in violation of the clear commands of God, it is nothing but empty deceit. It doesn’t matter who believes it or how long they have believed it. It is empty deceit.

And so Paul is warning the Colossians here not to get caught up in plausible sounding arguments that are based on human tradition but are in contradiction to the Christ-Centered Gospel.

But the problem is we like human tradition and we like human wisdom and we like our philosophers and our philosophies. Whether those philosophers are Plato and Aristotle or Jimmy Buffet and Bob Marley or Political Party A or Political Party B. We like to believe that we can sort out the universe and the purpose and meaning of life all on our own. We like to believe that we can explain God and understand God. Or we like to believe that we can describe the world without the need for a God and so we come up with all these philosophies and we are so impressed with ourselves. Aren’t we so smart!

But do you know what every human philosophy comes up with as the way to salvation? They come up with some system that is based on our good works. Take a look at every major religious system apart from Christianity. They are all works-based. Because that is how we think. And so if you want to buy into a philosophy that comes out of the mind of a human, be prepared to earn your way to heaven. Because that is what it will require of you. That is what they teach. And that is what gets passed down from generation to generation. We might repackage it and call it something new, but it rarely is new. And so we have a country full of people who believe all they need to do to make it to heaven is to do more good than they do bad. Because this is what everyone believes and this is what is easy to accept and tolerate. Who cares what the Bible says? This is what everyone believes.

So the content of this false teaching, or “The Philosophy” contained first of all, Human Tradition. But it had another source as well. Look back with me at verse 8. Paul says this philosophy is “according to human tradition” and “according to the elemental spirits of the world” or as the NIV puts it, according to “the elemental spiritual forces of this world.”

The Elemental Spirits of the World

Now this one is not as straight forward as the last one. There are really two popular schools of thought with regard to what Paul means by the phrase translated “according to the elemental spirits of the world.”

One school of thought sees this as Paul calling this philosophy basic or elementary. It is stating elementary things. Like learning to count to ten or learning your ABCs. This philosophy is just basic human principles. There is no real wisdom in it. These are just the elementary principles of the world. Again this is the same old stuff that people have been teaching and saying and repacking for centuries. Like we said earlier, principles of a works-based, morality religion.

That is one school of thought and it is very likely that is what Paul meant. But there is another interpretation that has been more popular in the last 100 years.

The folks on the other side of this issue say that what Paul has in mind here is in line with how the NIV translates the passage. They see Paul as saying that this philosophy, though it is based on human tradition, is rooted in and influenced by evil spiritual forces whose aim it is to draw people away from the true gospel. They believe what Paul is alluding to here by the words “elemental spirits of this world” are demonic forces. They get this from other writings in and around this time period.

And this is the position most modern scholars have taken with regard to these words in this chapter of Colossians. And it makes sense and works here as well.

Because the goal of demons is to distract us from the worship of the one true God. In ancient times, and in other parts of the world today, they accomplish this by posing as gods who are worshipped and do supernatural things to perpetuate the myth that they are real gods. But the main goal is only and always to distract us away from the one true God.

But in our context, a modern, advanced society, these demonic powers employ a different strategy. They promote a different set of plausible sounding arguments. Arguments like evolution and atheism and syncretism and relativism. They introduce religions like Buddhism and Hinduism or various other new age religions. In our context, they are not trying to distract us by setting themselves up as false gods, they are trying to distract us by arguments that there are no gods, including the one true God. Because this is more palatable to us than the existence demons and angels and other gods.

Or they promote modified versions of Christianity and shape society in a way where there is cultural pressure to be tolerant of these slight variations. I am thinking now of Mormonism and Christian Science and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or the health and wealth preachers who only teach portions of Scripture instead of the whole counsel of God and thus paint an incomplete picture of the true God of the Bible.

But the goal is the same. To keep us from worshipping the one true God. And to keep the cultural pressure at a level where you are considered a bigot if you claim to know “The Truth.”

Or maybe these spiritual forces distract us with other philosophies that promise happiness and fulfillment. Lots of people get so caught up in the political process that they make Messiah figures out of presidential candidates. They come to believe their candidate or their party is the way to bring utopia on this earth. And so we have liberal political philosophies and conservative political philosophies. And this becomes, for many people, their religion. They may not call it that, but if they devoted themselves to Christ and to spreading the gospel at the same level they devote themselves to passionately watching Fox News or CNN, I wonder what the effects would be for the kingdom of God. And you don’t think these demonic powers are more than happy to encourage people to make a religion out of their political persuasion? They don’t care who or what you worship, as long as it is not the God of the Bible who was revealed to us perfectly in Jesus Christ.

The point is, be on guard. See to it that you are not getting taken captive by these empty philosophies that are a distraction from your calling as a Christian and are a distraction from the one true God.

As I said earlier, any philosophy of living that promotes something other than Christ as the mediator between us and God, or promotes something in addition to Christ as the means to obtaining a full and happy life, is an empty philosophy. This is what I will call The Lie of Human Wisdom.

The Lie of Human Wisdom (vv. 8d–10)

The Lie of Human Wisdom is the promotion of any philosophy that is based on human wisdom or human tradition or any philosophy that has as its inspiration demonic forces that seek to draw us away from God. Look with me at the last part of verse 8 through verse 10.

The Lie of Human Wisdom is believing that we need something other than Jesus Christ to give us complete and full spiritual lives. That we need something other than Jesus Christ to make us right with God. That we need something other than Jesus Christ to be fulfilled. And these are all things that human wisdom and human tradition and spiritual forces of evil tell us. They want us to believe that Christ is not enough that we need something more. And Paul tells the Colossians you do not need anything more. You have all you need in Jesus Christ.

And here in verse 9 we have perhaps one of the clearest statements about the divinity of Jesus in the whole Bible. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” The Colossians have no business trying to appease these spiritual forces who they are being told control and govern their lives. The only person who requires their attention is Jesus Christ in whom the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. And at the end of verse 10, Paul says that Jesus has conquered all these spiritual forces that claim rule and authority over them. Paul wants the Colossians to know that they are not dependent on any other mediators between them and God besides Jesus Christ. They can go straight to the source. And better than that, we see in verse 10 that the source has come straight to them.

Paul says, Jesus is God and that Jesus has filled you and completed you. This is an amazing statement. The divine fullness of God fills Christ and we, as believers, are filled with Christ. The Colossians have everything they need for a full spiritual life… they have Jesus Christ. And the same is true for us. We have been filled (pay attention to the tense there). We HAVE BEEN filled. This is something that has already taken place for us and it is something that is done to us by an outside force. God has filled us.

The false teachers were promoting a “fullness of life” through the acceptance and adherence to their “philosophy”. They wanted the Colossians to believe that there was something lacking in their spiritual lives, that they had only a beginner’s-level knowledge of God, that Jesus would only get them so far. But Paul says, “No! You have Christ, and in Christ the whole fullness of God dwells bodily. He is all you need. You are complete in him.” As one commentator puts it, “Since Christ is the fullness of God and believers are in him, they have all the fullness humans can ever possess” (Garland, Colossians/Philemon, 446).

And if you turn on the TV today you will see many so-called preachers trying to tell you all about the things you are lacking if you want to have a happy and fulfilled spiritual life. And there are many confused people who are walking around today believing these lies of human wisdom. Believing empty philosophies of life that are promising happiness in ways other than through Jesus Christ. And friends it is all a lie. Any philosophy of life that is not based on Jesus Christ is a sham. I don’t care who promotes it, how long they have believed it, what they claim it has done for them. There is no philosophy of living that is worth the paper it is written on that rejects Jesus Christ as God in the flesh and savior of the world.

And I am not just talking about religious philosophies here. But also the philosophy that tells you money will make you happy. The philosophy that says that the only people who are fulfilled in this life are those who are rich and famous. Any philosophy that tells us that Jesus Christ alone is not enough for us to be fulfilled… I want you to reject that. Don’t look for political saviors. Don’t waste your money on motivational speakers and their self-help books. Don’t be enamored by celebrities and their glamorous lifestyles full of hidden misery. Reject it all!

Conclusion

Don’t get captured by the Lure and Lie of Human Wisdom. Instead place your trust in divine wisdom. And the only source of divine wisdom we have is contained in the Bible.

You see friends, the reality of it all can be boiled down to one simple, common problem we all have. That problem is sin. And the only one who can fix the sin problem we have is Jesus Christ. He is all you need. In him you can be made complete. Philosophers come and go. They repackage and warm over the same old philosophies again and again. But the Word of God never changes. It endures. And it has always pointed human beings to their need for a mediator between them and God. And the New Testament reveals the name of that mediator. And his name is Jesus Christ.

What do you really believe about this world? Are you buying into a philosophy which is based on human tradition and evil spiritual forces seeking to deceive you? You can either get caught up in all that stuff or you can become complete in Christ. You can search the world high and low for answers about the purpose of it all. You can look to New Age religions or Cults. You can look to science and reason. You can determine that it is all a big accident or you can pretend you don’t care. Or you can look to Jesus Christ.

I am going to keep looking to Jesus. When I look around the world and can’t make sense of things with my puny little mind, I will say with the Apostle Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I will keep looking to Jesus. I hope you will too.