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Colossians 2:16-4:5 by Robert Dean
All believers are engaged in a cosmic spiritual battle. The conflict may not be within the obvious spheres of personal or physical enemies. Satan is our arch-enemy and inculcates his false system of thinking on the human race in various guises. At the core of Satan-promoted thinking is an assault on God’s authority. However, Satan is the master counterfeiter and disguises his false religions and philosophies with the robes of righteousness and light. This makes these systems attractive to our sin nature. Learn in this lesson the commonalities and dangers of Satan’s worldly thought systems that sabotage our reliance on the all-sufficiency of Christ and our spiritual growth.
Series:Colossians (2011)
Duration:47 mins 32 secs

How the Dynamics of Heresy Appeal to You - Colossians 2:16-4:5


We are engaged in a cosmic spiritual battle. Scripture teaches us that this battle is not something that is focused on people and physical, material enemies. We often get in conflict with people but they are ultimately not the enemy. The enemy is invisible, the Scripture teaches. The enemy is Satan and the hordes of his demons that are arrayed against us. We can't see them at all; we have no knowledge of them. In fact we would not even know that there are angels or a devil if the Word of God didn't tell us. And that is at the very core what Paul is dealing with in terms of what is sometimes called the Colossian heresy. This is the false teaching that he is correcting in this part of the epistle, focusing not so much as who the false teachers are and every aspect of what they teach but focusing on it enough so that we understand the basic themes of this false teaching that distracted the Colossians believers from a complete and total dependence upon the Lord Jesus Christ and upon His sufficiency.

But we learn something especially in the rest of chapter two and into the beginning of chapter three by studying the results of this heresy and the beliefs of this heretical thought. By studying that we come to understand basic trends in all false religions, philosophies and ideas that are generated by the world system. The world system is really a manifestation of the thinking of Satan.

In eternity past we know that at some point God created the angels as an autonomous species—no propagation whatsoever. So there is no unity, no genetic unity among the angels. This is one reason why God did not design salvation for them like the salvation we have. Christ died for us because He partakes of our physical genetic makeup; He is a full human being, so He can die as a substitute for other human beings. There is none of that in the angelic realm because there is no organic unity among the angels. And the highest of all the angelic beings that God created was one we have identified, based on a Latin word used in the translation of Isaiah chapter fourteen as Lucifer, the angel of light. In fact, in 2 Corinthians chapter eleven Paul talks about how Satan and his ministers appear as an angel of light.

2 Cor 11:14, 15 NASB "No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds." There he has in mind when he talks about Satan's servants he is talking about teachers, pastors, purveyors of false systems that are teaching contrary to the revelation of God.

In eternity past this beautiful creature –from the Scriptures we have in Ezekiel chapter 28 and Isaiah chapter 14—is the most intelligent, the most powerful, and has the most capabilities of any creature that God ever created. He can do anything and everything that all of the other angels could do and far beyond what they could do. He became full of himself. This is the original sin of the universe—arrogance. And he decided that he wanted to be worshipped in God's place. Isaiah records five statements—five "I wills"—that summarize the mentality of Satan. But there is one word that really focuses on what happened at that instant, and that is the world "rebellion." The very core of this angelic conflict, this spiritual warfare, is an assault on the authority of God. So that at the very core of spirituality, at the very core of life itself is the issue of authority. Who is in charge? Who determines truth? Who controls the decisions of our lives? Who is the one who is really the source of truth on the basis of which we can then evaluate and understand everything else in life? So the issue is really an issue of authority.

When we look at this in terms of the episode with Lucifer we say it is easy to answer: the creator. But then when it comes to the decisions that you and I make on a day-to-day basis and we decide against God, what we have done is we have followed Satan in his rebellion when we choose to disobey God. So Satan's original rebellion manifests in certain universal characteristics. There is an emphasis on independence or autonomy. It is an emphasis that says I don't need God. That is the autonomy aspect.

The second aspect is antagonism. When we assert our independence we have a conflict of wills and we become hostile, angry. That is what happens. There is a generation of antagonism toward God—rejection of His authority and hostility toward Him, and we think that God is just this major party pooper in the sky. That is how a lot of people really think about God. But God is the one who by definition knows all things. He knows all that will be and all that could be. He knows all the actual and all the possible. And He is perfect and righteous, and when we combine perfect righteousness with His absolute and perfect knowledge then that means that when God expresses His will in terms of our lives then He is not doing it out of ignorance; He is not doing it out of selfishness and because He just wants to limit our party time and our capabilities to do all that we want to do and be all that we want to be. He knows where all that goes, where independence from God leads—always to disaster, no matter how much success or happiness may be experienced in the short term. So the thinking of Satan is based on these two basic elements: the element of autonomy or independence from God and the element of antagonism toward God.

Often that antagonism toward God is a self-righteous antagonism that wraps itself in the cloak or disguise of righteousness, which is what we see here in 2 Corinthians chapter eleven. Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light and his servants transform themselves into servants of righteousness. There is this disguise, so that when we are facing something that is in opposition to God it is often cloaked in light and righteousness that is a pseudo light and a pseudo righteousness.

Where it gets a little difficult and personal for us is that we have by the time we were two or three years old mastered this element within our own sin nature and our own souls in terms of deception, so we have managed to cloak all of our self-centered desires in these same robes of righteousness and light. We are masters of self-justification before we probably have a vocabulary of three hundred words. This sets up for us the basic trend of history ever since Adam and Eve followed Satan in his sin. Because their sin was the same sin, a rejection of divine authority (God had revealed His will to them) and Satan came along with an appeal to empiricism (It looks good!) and an appeal to rationalism: see, God doesn't want the best for you, He is keeping something from you. So they reject the authority of God and substitute their own authority. They are looking within themselves to find the answer rather than the revelation of God. And the result: they fell under condemnation of sin and they died spiritually immediately, and the entire human race, the progeny of Adam and Eve was plunged into sin. Why? Because they rejected authority.    

Heresy, false teaching, is all built and predicated upon a rejection of what God has said. It is based on the rejection of the authority of God's revelation. As we see here in Colossians chapter two we see that there is a shift in terms of their orientation to authority. They have rejected the authority of Scripture but they don't say it. We often hear the right thing but then we stop and look at what is done and we realize that actions don't match words. This is true in many fields of intellectual activity. So we have people who will say they believe in the sufficiency of Christ but then they turn right around and are practicing things that deny the sufficiency of Christ because they don't have a one hundred per cent commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture. It is Scripture plus. But they are going to cloak that in language of Scripture alone—and we all do that practically speaking every time we sin. Every time we commit sin we are basically saying God's Word is wrong, right now I'm choosing my word as right and I am going to do my word. It is a rejection of authority.

We look at all kinds of other teaching that is not strictly biblical and here we are including that under the idea of heresy, false teaching. It involves those two broad categories that imitate Satan's thought, autonomy and antagonism.

False religions are all demonically inspired. There are manifestations of liberal Christian religion that deny the Trinity, deny the total depravity of man, and deny Jesus. They meet in various churches and various denominations that don't really treat the Bible as something that has any authority but they like the morality of Christianity and so they try to separate that from the Bible and follow that. And they are good people, wonderful people. They don't go out and commit human sacrifice and they preach peace and goodness and anti-war, to be good to the planet and to the environment and lots of really nice and wonderful sounding things.

Other religious systems that are part of America and part of other parts of the world have their own pantheism of deity. They are all manifestations of human viewpoint and ultimately of Satan's thinking before the fall. That means every person—including you when you are not operating on the Scriptures—is operating on this satanic system of thought based on independence and antagonism toward God. It doesn't matter what the specifics or the details of those religious or philosophical systems might be they are all just manifestations and facets of the same satanic viewpoint, the same human viewpoint. And these various philosophies are the philosophies that are promoted over against true biblical Christianity in the world. So there are false religious systems from the ancient pantheistic and polytheistic religions in the ancient world all the way up to various modern ethical philosophical systems that came out of the Enlightenment. It doesn't matter what the details are, they are all the same cosmic thinking.

Just because you are a believer and spend a lot of time studying the Word doesn't always mean that you always have it together in terms of our own thinking. That is what is happening in this particular congregation in Colosse. They are not overtly denying the cross; they are not overtly denying Jesus; they are not overtly denying the truth. They are doing it in a much more subtle way. They are adding something. The result is that the sufficiency and pre-eminence of Jesus is being distorted, diluted and lost. They are not saying they don't believe in Jesus, they may even say they believe Jesus is sufficient; but what they do is contradictory to that affirmation.

This is why Paul addresses this in Colossians 2:6-8. NASB "Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, {so} walk in Him, having been firmly rooted {and now} being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, {and} overflowing with gratitude. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ."

How do we walk in Him? We walk by faith, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:7, and not by sight. We trust in Him as the sufficient solution to all problems in life. But if we try to solve problems apart from Him in independence and in antagonism to Him then what happens is there may be short term benefits but we haven't really addressed the core issue, which is always a spiritual issue.   

Now we are "being built up in Him," and that is where it happens. In Him, in Christ, because He is sufficient. All the way through here is this emphasis on His sufficiency. Then he introduces the first allusion to this problem in Colosse and he says [v. 8] beware, watch out, be alert, keep your spiritual eyes open. That means you have to have some kind of truth in your soul to be able to properly evaluate or critically think about things because, as Paul warned the Ephesians elders when he met with them in Miletus there are going to be wolves that come and attack the flock from outside, and some of you are going to lead them astray as well. There are going to be pastors and teachers that we trust that go off track, and they are going to be a source of deception as well.

Here Paul is saying that this group of false teachers, this ideology, religious system, has already infected the body of Christ in Colosse. So it involves being deceived and cheated because when you live your life on anything generated by the sin nature, no matter how moral it may be or how good it may be, it has no lasting value. It will be wood, hay and straw at the judgment seat of Christ and that will rob us of eternal rewards.

"See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ." So here is the contrast. On the one hand there is are the thought systems developed by man which are seen to be parallel to the basic principles of the world. This is a use of the world, the Greek word kosmos [kosmoj] which indicates that system of thinking that is promoted by Satan. Paul says in Romans 12:2 not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. There is this contrast here. You are either one or the other—operating according to the traditions of man and worldly thinking which is human viewpoint and also satanic viewpoint. When we are out of fellowship we are operating on worldly thinking, cosmic thinking; you are in one sense no different from the Aztecs, from the self-righteous New England Unitarian, to the pagan Hindu. It is either that or it is according to Christ. That is radical. Every moment you are operating in one or the other.

What Paul is saying is don't get caught up or buy into a system of thinking that rationalizes away the sufficiency of Christ in our life because that is where our riches are; that is what God has given us.

We have three enemies the Scripture teaches in terms of the spiritual battle that we are in. The chief enemy of all is Satan who, Peter tells us, goes around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. He is on the outside. The second enemy is his type of thinking, the sophisticated systems of thought generated from satanic thought, and that is called worldliness in the Bible—cosmic thinking. That has an attraction to our sin nature which is the internal enemy, the traitor inside the gate as it were. The sin nature is motivated by a lust pattern which is oriented toward basic core desires that are all oriented to me—I have to fulfil my life, it is all up to me. It is total self-absorption, arrogance at the very core.

Arrogance at the very core creates these lusts, these desires for things, for people, for substances, for power: that if I have that then I protect me; if I have that then I am what I want to be. So it generates these lusts, and lust can trend in opposite directions. We have a trend on the one hand towards asceticism and legalism. Asceticism is a spiritual term that relates to the idea that if I give up things, if I deny and restrict myself through some sort of rigorous ethical system then I can become acceptable to God. This is manifested as legalism.    

Legalism isn't saying you shall not lie or you should tell the truth, or you should love one another, insisting on the rules and standards and the protocol code for the Christian life. That isn't legalism. Legalism is saying that that is the basis of God's favor toward us, His grace toward us, and by being obedient we gain God's grace and blessing. Grace teaches us that God has already given us everything, we just need to learn to live on the basis of it and appropriate it, and that comes by being obedient to Him. It is already ours, we just have to learn to live consistently with it so we can learn to exploit what is in our possession. Legalism usually goes hand in hand with asceticism.

On the other opposite side we have trends towards licentiousness, which is Christ paid for sins so let's go sin! It is already paid for. Lasciviousness, i.e. licentious lust patterns of antinomianism. That is, there are just no absolutes that we have to apply anymore, just live how we want to.

Those are all basically moral or ethical ideas and they also express themselves in terms of how people think. (Where it gets complex is that we are ascetic in one area and licentious in another area.) Are we going to think biblically or are we going to think in terms of the world. The world thinks in terms of empiricism, rationalism and mysticism. Each of those independent from the revelation of God have certain benefits. But ultimately they are an expression of a rejection of the authority of God. Rationalism is saying the human mind alone can come to truth. Empiricism is saying I'm smart enough on the basis of my experience and the experience of other human beings to arrive at the truth without any input from God. It didn't work for Adam and Eve; it isn't going to work for you. Mysticism says I just know it in the core of my being and it feels so good it has to be from God, and on the basis of my own interpretation of my feelings, my sense, it must be true. I'm not going to validate it from the Word of God. Mysticism is also a rejection of divine authority. All these manifest in different ways.

We need to understand this Colossian heresy and the way to do that is we just need to basically reverse engineer it. We need to look at the element here because Paul doesn't say this is Platonism or Aristotilianism or Gnosticism, etc. But he tells us the specifics, and by looking at the specifics we can sort of back track and see what systems were popular and ended up in the blender of the thinking of the Colossian believers. They had this syncretistic mix. The thing is, so do we. We are all influenced by the culture around us which all kinds of inconsistent, illogical, irrational and sometimes incredibly logical and rational ideas that are contrary to Scripture. Most of them are wrapped in cloaks of righteousness and light and we can be deceived very easily. There is only one way to cut through it all and that is to know the Word. It is the Word of God and the sufficiency of the Word of God under the power of the Spirit that gives us the truth that we use to cut through these issues so that we can understand reality as God created it.

The bottom line is the same issue is the same for us as it was for Satan. Are we going to submit to the authority of the Word of God or are we going to find another way? That is the issue.

Jesus had that same option. Rather than following in Satan's pattern or in Adam's pattern Paul tells us in Philippians chapter two that He did not think that His privileges of God were worth grasping on to and asserting. He humbled Himself to the point of death. Humility is the opposite of death. Humility is obedience to the authority of God and Jesus submitted to that, became a man and went to the cross and all that that entailed to fulfil the Father's plan and sin would be paid for. All we have to do is to trust in Him. That is how we have our primary strategic victory in this warfare. Then we have to exploit it, so the challenge to everyone is, are we going to exploit it or just say I'm glad I'm going to heaven. A lot of people think that way but we have to win the battle.