Currently in our small group on Sunday mornings we are going through a study entitled “War of the Worldviews” in which we compare and contrast Christianity over and against different belief systems that are endorsed in our world today. While we have looked at Jehovah’s witnesses, Mormons, Scientologists, Muslims, Buddhists, and have also discussed Critical Theory, ultimately there are two choices that one has when he comes to deciding what he is going to live by—the way of God as revealed in the Bible (and rightly understood) or the way of the world (regardless of the supposed variations therein). Paul understood this ultimate contrast and educates the church to this end in Colossians 2:8-15. In this passage Paul presents two worldviews and provides a compelling case for the one represented in the Scripture to both protect and encourage the church.
1. WORLDVIEW #1: A Purely Rationalistic Worldview-2:8
As Paul continues to warn the church against falsehood, he identifies an existential and spiritual threat of which they need to be acutely aware—“See to it that no one takes you captive through Philosophy and empty deception” (2:8a). Paul believed the influx of heresy in the life of the church was a well organized and planned attack against Christianity (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 252). Such coordination may have taken the form of vain speculation and false teaching in and around Asia Minor, but ultimately, this attack was motivated by evil forces in the spiritual realm. Here, Paul describes the particular manifestation of this threat as “philosophy and empty deception.” The way that this phrase is constructed connects “philosophy” and “empty deception” together and draws attention to a specific brand of thinking. In other words, Paul is not calling into question philosophy as a whole, but a particular brand of philosophy that is ultimately empty and deceptive—i.e. lacking in any substance, leading nowhere. Such vain speculation that ultimately leads nowhere is not benign/inconsequential. Instead, Paul expends great energy in describing just how dangerous it is by suggesting that it can “take someone captive.” The verb calls to mind an oppressor carrying off booty or captives following a victory in battle. Applied here, the idea involves taking complete control of a person. If the adage “as one thinks so is he” is true, empty deception/vain speculation can completely overwhelm a person and lead them in the wrong direction—away from Christ. Avoiding such thinking is paramount for the church and her people if they are to persevere and continue its mission. Thankfully, Paul provides some helpful characteristics of this brand of thinking that will aid us in identifying it and distancing ourselves from it.
First, vain speculation and empty deceit is humanistic—i.e. man-centric—“according to the tradition of men” (2:8b). In other words, the kind of worldview that Paul warns against places mankind at the center of the universe and believes that he can solve all his problems. Such a view believes that we can think, innovate, work, or win our way out of anything. Such thinking renders God’s revelation unnecessary and/or obsolete. Beware of those with too high a view of the human person and his capacities.
Second, vain speculation and empty deceit is materialistic—“according to the elementary principles of the world” (2:8c). Originally the term “stoixeia” referred to what many believed were the the four basic elements of the world: earth, fire, wind, and water. The term was later used of the basic words of the alphabet. Even later the term suggested the “ABC’s” of something—i.e. the basics. Still others use the word to refer to the signs of the Zodiac and the powers that occupied the planets (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 253). While exactly what Paul is referring to here is somewhat up for debate, generally speaking this calls to mind the humanistic tendency to understand something by means of breaking it down to its components and in this way highlights a very materialistic way of thinking. It is the propensity to believe we can figure everything out if we can add up something’s elements. Scientism and naturalism are more recent expressions of this in our world today. However, different versions of such thinking were also prevalent in the world of Colossae and could very easily lead people away from the reverent awe that comes when one confronts radical complexity and mystery of God and what he has revealed in Christ.
Finally, vain speculation and empty deceit is anti-Christ/sans Jesus---“rather than according to Christ” (2:8d). In fact, one might say that any worldview that does not have Christ as its cornerstone and champion ought to be avoided like the plague, lest is capture you and take you where you ought not be (lest it control you in a godless and faithless way).
Ultimately, the first worldview described in this passage is a purely rationalistic worldview that exalts the human person and the materialism of this world to the neglect of God’s revelation in Christ. Such a worldview is empty and ultimately leads nowhere. Unprepared to ultimately/satisfactorily solve the problems it suggests it can conquer, this worldview only succeeds in capturing unsuspecting/misinformed people and controlling them in ways that bring destruction.
2. WORLDVIEW #2: A Christ-Centered Worldivew-2:9-15
Thankfully, there is another worldview/guiding framework for life—a Christ-centered worldview that is explained in verses 9-15. Notice, Paul devotes far more time, effort, and attention to describing the contours of this much-preferred system of thinking. First, the apostle highlights the realities found in Christ in verses 9-11. In Christ there is found several things that are discovered no where else. Verse 9 indicates that “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” While this expression of Jesus’ divinity is unusual, it is always difficult to express the God-man relationship in Christ via human language. “The ‘fullness of deity’ was Paul’s way of stating that Jesus is every bit God” (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 255). This fullness concerns the completeness of the divine nature and does not demand that Christ is all there is of God. In other words, Jesus is every bit God but does not exhaust the dimensions of deity as the Father and the Spirit are also equally divine. Jesus’ divinity is unique in that his deity dwells in bodily form. In the form of Christ, we have the reality of God.
Colossians 1:15-“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation”
Not only will you find the full expression of divinity in Christ, but those who embrace Jesus will also find completeness in Christ—“and in Him you have been made complete” (2:10). The perfect tense suggests a past act with ongoing realities. Because the believer has been made positionally/essentially complete in Christ, they are currently undergoing a process of perfect completion (existentially). I.e. “you have been and are being made complete.” This position and process only exists in Christ.
Completeness is a desire implicit within the human person. Much of what is observed in our world today reveals many various quests for being completed or satisfied. Jesus offers true completion and ultimate satisfaction to those who come to him in faith. Who better to offer such than the one in whom exists all deity?
In addition to deity and completeness, believers will also find leadership in Christ—“and He is the head over all rule and authority” (2:10b). Powers both seen and unseen are subject to Jesus. Therefore, those found in Him have nothing to fear as any foe or oppressor must ultimately answer to Christ!
While these incredible blessings are found in Christ and are mainstays in a Christ-centered worldview, these are only available to people because of the actions that Christ performs in the life of believers.
Paul begins listing the may activities Christ accomplishes in the lives of believers by referencing an old idea to illustrate a new application—circumcision. He says, “and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (2:11). This verse remembers one way in which the Israelites (particularly the men) were consecrated unto God. Physical circumcision was one of the signs in the Old Testament Jewish community of God’s people being set apart. However, this outward sign was always intended for more than just a physical marking. It was intended to illustrate an inner-spiritual reality of spiritual separation and holiness. This spiritual reality is what Paul is most concerned with here. Christ offers true/spiritual circumcision of the heart that sets people apart.
Romans 2:28-29-“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
What existed in sign and symbol in the Old Testament has been fulfilled and ultimately completed in Christ who now uniquely consecrates people unto himself. This is one of the many activities that makes the many blessings “in Christ” possible.
Christ has not only set people apart in a special way through spiritual circumcision, he has also baptized people in a spiritual baptism—“having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12). Baptism, like circumcision is a sign of deep spiritual realities. First, it highlights a change of identity in which people go into the water one way and out of the water another way (from the bondage of sin to freedom in Christ). Second, it highlights the process by which this change of identity was made possible (we go into the water as buried with Christ in baptism and we are raised out of the water as those who walk in new life). Physical baptism does not save anyone any more than physical circumcision made someone a true Jew. However, the realities that these outward signs illustrate are very real on a spiritual level as they describe what Christ has done on behalf of those who turn to him in faith.
Romans 6:3ff-“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection,..”
2 Tim. 2:11-“It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him;
Christ not only circumcises the heart and provides spiritual baptism, he also makes alive those who were once dead—“when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him” (2:13a). In this statement Paul combines the two aforementioned activities and suggests that Christ’s completed work in these arenas provides life to those who were formally dead in their sin. As only God can bring life to the dead, this ability associated with Christ further supports Paul’s claim of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus’ ability to bring life to the dead was tested and proven true in his own death to life episode three days after his crucifixion. Because he is alive from the dead, those who are saved are said to be “made alive together with him.”
Christ provides spiritual circumcision, baptism, life, and he also provides forgiveness—"Having forgiven us all our transgressions” (2:13b). It is this forgiveness for wrongdoing that is so necessary for unbelieving sinners to be made right with God their Creator. After all, sin separates all from God and the wrap sheet that has been growing since birth has accrued an enormous debt that people are woefully incapable of paying. Thankfully, Christ has acted in such a way to take care of all of this so that forgiveness can be applied to who turn to him in faith—“having canceled our the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (2:14). Jesus has forever and completely satisfied the debt owed from sin. Not only has he posted bail, he has removed the charges! The verb used for “having canceled” means to cause something to cease by obliterating any evidence.” Praise be to God that forgiveness for sin is possible in Christ.
Finally, Christ has also accomplished total victory. In fact, it was his death on the cross that also defeated sin and death and ensured the ultimate fate of all evil everywhere—“When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him,…” (2:15). This was prophesied in Genesis 2:15 and fulfilled at the cross. In the cross you have a compelling paradox. “Jesus hung naked and disgraced, dying publicly for sinners. The evil forces assumed they had triumphed. In reality, through this act of both sacrifice and triumph, God disgraced evil beings. The tables were turned. God triumphed in the redemptive work of Christ” and those who follow him are led in triumph (Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 266).
2 Corinthians 2:14-“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.”
Applied to this context and the war of the worldviews that exist between empty philosophies and Christ-centered thinking, God’s triumph in Christ successfully strips the gaudy clothing off the imposter frameworks and exposes how fruitless and pointless they really are. None should follow such systems.
This passage demonstrates a real contrast of worldviews. Ultimately there are only two. First there is a worldview that puts people at the center, limits things down to the parts/material, and excludes Jesus altogether. Such a system is called empty and proves destructive in the end. Second there is a worldview that puts Christ at the center (along with all the fullness of deity, completeness, and perfect leadership) and explains how sinners can, in fact, be saved by means of his many successfully completed actions. The first is a worldview that is as limited and wrought with weaknesses as are the people who advance them. The second worldview is as complete and satisfying as Christ is who serves as its cornerstone and champion. Paul’s warning against vain speculation and endorsement of Christ-centered thinking is just as relevant today as it was to his original audience. Which will you choose to guide your thinking and, as a result, your life?