To the Christian, specifically my fellow seminary students…
A sermon manuscript on Colossians 2:8-15, prepared for my homiletics class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
How many of you have a smartphone? Personally, I’ve been an iPhone guy for awhile. I love this thing. I’m old enough to remember the Mesozoic era before mobile technology, but I can’t remember how we survived without it. But that means I’m also old enough to remember when our lives weren’t dominated by our phones.
A growing number of people seem to be totally helpless without their smartphones. They can’t seem to add two numbers or find the grocery store or decide where to eat unless Siri or Google or Yelp tells them what to do. A recent USA Today article stated that 1 in 4 accidents in the US is caused in part by cell phone usage while driving. There are members of my extended family who are barely present at family gatherings because of the critically-important need to harvest resources on 14 different Facebook games 24 hours a day. And I know people who seem more interested in posting memories to Instagram or chatting on Facebook at any given moment than actually making memories by talking with real people in the same room with them.
So, it’s clear that for some, they no longer own their phones, their phones own them.
But distractions powerful enough to enslave us were not invented by Apple. In our passage today, nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul is writing on this very subject to the Colossian church.
Invitation to Turn to Passage
Open your Bibles with me to Colossians 2:8-15.
Introduction to the Text
While you’re turning there, let me refresh us on context. We are picking up where we left off after our last time together.
Remember that Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians to remind them of Christ’s supremacy and sufficiency in all things. They were trying to blend other, lesser philosophies into their Christian worship, and in response Paul is pleading with them to abandon distractions and trust fully in Christ. He has already stated that Christ is everything, as we saw last time, and he builds on that argument in this passage.
Prayer for Illumination
So, let’s pray and then dive into the passage together. Please bow with me…
Reading of Scripture
Okay, Colossians 2:8-15. Please follow along with me, as I read (from the ESV):
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. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
In this passage, Paul gets at the heart of the matter right out of the gate. He exhorts us that if we belong to Christ, then we must not let anything enslave us! The Spirit is saying, through Paul: You are mine. You belong to Christ. Don’t let anything else take you captive!
We see this in v8: “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.” As we said, the Colossians were beginning to embrace “other philosophies and empty deceit” – hollow arguments that could trick them and lead them away from God’s truth. These were human ideas, not from God. Paul refers to them as the “elemental spirits of the world”. This term is also translated “principles, rudiments or elements,” particularly in a spiritual sense. It refers to the fundamental building blocks of all worldly philosophies – basic human ideas, which are the opposite of the gospel.
What might some of these look like in our day? We talked about smartphones, and that might be a little comical for some of us, but I’m convinced it’s a real problem for others. And it certainly doesn’t stop there. Anything that would threaten to sit on the throne of our hearts in God’s place is no joke.
How many people in our day believe that God is obligated to materially bless you if you have enough faith, or that all roads lead to God, or that God only approves of those who look or act a certain way — or go to a certain church? Many in our day deny Biblical authority and objective truth altogether.
Perhaps hitting a little closer to home…
Do we believe that our success is measured in the number of people in the sanctuary on Sunday morning? Do we value the approval of certain people more than the approval of God Himself? Are we tempted to believe that the gospel needs to be more inclusive or tolerant? Do we leave it to someone else to care for the widow and orphan because we have important ministry of the Word to attend to? Do we fill our days with activities we feel like we must do, and effectively treat time in Scripture or prayer as optional or regularly give God our leftovers?
I could probably go on all day, and I think Paul would qualify every one of these idea as “philosophy and empty deceit”. These are distracting and deceptive ideas. They ring in our ears, because they’re absolutely everywhere. They are the “elemental spirits of this world”, and lead us away from the truth of the gospel. In response, Paul claims freedom for us in Christ. To both the Colossians and to us, he issues a clarion call: Do not be taken captive by these ideas! You belong to Christ!
Paul then proceeds to give us five (5) compelling reasons why we should flee enslaving distractions and fully embrace Christ.
Filled by God
I. God has filled us. (9-10)
First, in v9-10, Paul reminds us that we have been filled by Christ. He writes, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” All the fullness of the divine power of God dwells in the physical person of Jesus Christ. He is fully God and fully man. As such, He both knows what we need and has the infinite capacity to provide it for us. And He exercises both that knowledge and that power, because He loves us. Although Paul doesn’t spell it out, he clearly implies that it is God who does the filling, and if God fills us, is there any doubt that He wouldn’t fill us to the brim? I say no. God does everything in abundance. What God fills is always pressed down, shaken together, and running over!
Note that we have not just been filled by Christ, but we are also filled in Christ. Other translations say “complete in Him”. He has provided everything we need for life and godliness, filling us all the way up. Nothing else is necessary or useful in addition to what God has supplied to us in Christ. Can there be any room for anything else in the person’s heart which God has filled with Himself?
What if I were to set a five gallon bucket on the table here, and begin to fill it with rocks? We could add large rocks and small rocks. When no more of those would fit, we could poor in gravel or even sand to “fill” the bucket. But it would only appear full. This is man-made fullness. God is not like the rocks, He’s more like water. With or without rocks, there is always room for water in the bucket. Even if I had a bucket with rocks and gravel bursting over the top, I could likely still pour gallons of water in it.
And here’s the question… Knowing the amazing love and exceeding goodness of God, who would want anything to fill their bucket other than God Himself? Don’t forget that, with God, everything is in abundance. God doesn’t just have five gallons of water that He cobbled together to fill our five gallon bucket. He has an infinite supply of water at His disposal … and the authority and desire to use it on our behalf.
What if I could install a faucet in this room that would pour 500 gallons of water an hour into our 5 gallon bucket? In an hour, the water would fill this room. In a day, the whole building would be underwater. Now we’re getting a better picture of the way God fills things. God’s filling is a deluge. And under that kind of pressure, what possible room or need could there be for a few rocks? I wonder if Paul had a similar word picture in mind when he referred to “rudimentary elements of this world” (another way to translate “elemental spirits” in v9). I wonder if he was picturing the Colossians clutching a few pebbles in the face of God’s tidal wave of potential filling.
Then in v10, Paul also makes this an issue of authority. God has made Christ “the head of all rule and authority”, and then turned around and filled us in Christ. One of the things God fills us with is Christ’s authority. We are His representatives. Christ is Lord over all things, and amazingly He has decreed that we will rule with Him as co-heirs in His Kingdom. Paul and the other apostles talk about this extensively elsewhere in the New Testament. So if God fills us in radical abundance and is preparing for us to rule with Christ, what could human philosophies have to offer us? We must turn our backs on them, and receive our fullness from Christ alone. Who wants a bunch of rocks, when the bucket could be entirely filled with the water of Christ!?
II. God has consecrated us. (11)
Secondly, God consecrates us. In v11, Paul says, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” To be consecrated is to be set apart for special or specific use. In the Old Testament, God ordained that men would be physically circumcised as a very obvious, very outward sign that they had been marked for God – set apart or “consecrated” for Him.
But Paul makes the point that in Christ, God has marked His people with a mark far more significant than physical circumcision. God’s consecrating work is in our hearts. Paul says our circumcision is “made without hands,” meaning that it’s not physical, it’s spiritual. This is the work of Christ on the cross. It’s the work of our dying to self so that we can live to Christ. It is the mark that says we belong to Him.
God is calling us to step into our roles as consecrated vessels for the Lord’s use. This means we consider our lives to belong to God. We therefore lay down our own purposes and plans, discount the demands of human wisdom, and pick up what God has on His agenda for our lives. He has a specific purpose for each of us, and He has set us apart for that purpose since before we were born.
In this room, each of us has been called by God to pursue seminary, each from his or her own unique background. For me, God called me out of a 20 year career in the marketplace to devote whatever time and energy that remains in my life to the ministry of the Word.
I can’t speak to God’s calling in your heart, but I know it’s there if you have ears to hear. It’s different and personal for each of us. We all have a story. It must begin with submission to the Lordship of Christ, so that it becomes His story, not ours. And then wherever that story takes us, God expects us to bring the filling we just discussed to those around us, and to allow God’s torrential pouring to overflow into the lives of those uniquely positioned in our individual spheres of influence.
Whatever the details of our calling, Paul would exhort us, as he did the Colossians … Don’t get distracted. Don’t let anything in this world pull you away from what God has for you, because no matter how attractive it might seem, it will amount to slavery. Christ died that you might know God and be set apart for His use. And whatever that looks like for you personally, make it your laser focus, because it’s the only thing worth spending yourself to achieve.
III. God has resurrected us (12-13a)
Thirdly, God has resurrected us, and given us an altogether new life in Christ. Look at vv12-13. “You have been buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Christ.” God has called us heavenward away from all the earthly things that could have been our focus or our life’s ambition — away from all our earthly gods. He has enticed us by His glory and beauty and love out of a quagmire of earthly passions that desired to enslave and destroy us, and called us to something so much greater. And it isn’t God’s intention that we keep our old lives, our old sins, or our old gods in some closet somewhere in case we get bored or lonely and want someone to play with. Instead, we are to put them to death. As in, stake through the heart. God calls us to burn the ships. We have slain and buried our old lives, and new life in Christ rises from those ashes, just as baptism outwardly demonstrates.
I can’t say it any clearer or better than Paul did: “We have been raised with Christ through faith in the powerful working of God!” God raised Jesus from the dead, so that He could raise us from the dead. And make no mistake… we were dead – not slightly wounded or somewhat ineffective. We were dead, and now we are alive! Praise the Lord!
So I have to ask us all, myself included…
Is there anything about your life that God cannot have? Are there toys or trinkets, philosophies or empty deceit that you won’t turn over to Him? Is there something distracting you that you know you need to hand to the Lord, even if it’s painful, so that He can have your entire heart?
What about money? What about success? What about the approval of others? Or relationships in general? Is there a sinful pattern that only you know about, and the truth is that, way deep down, you absolutely love that sin? Is there something you’re afraid of or proud of or clinging to with a kung-fu death grip?
Whatever it is that tempts you, don’t let anything else sit in God’s place in your heart. The life your perfect Father intends for you is only possible when Jesus sits on the throne in your heart that He alone was meant to occupy. Anything else that would promise you the fulfillment Jesus would bring you is lying to you. Remember last time we talked about the vine and the branches. The branch that remains in anything but the vine might look alive, but the fact is that it’s not. So were we … dead in our trespasses and the uncircumcision of our sinful nature, but God has made us alive in Christ!
He has filled you with power and authority.
He has set you apart for service. He intends you to be unencumbered by your old sinful life.
And God has literally given you resurrection power over sin and death, distraction and idols, anything that might enslave you … that you might slay them in His Name, bury them, and rise to new life without them.
Who in their right mind would give up that kind of radical freedom to voluntarily return to slavery!?
IV. God has acquitted us (13b-14)
Next, God has acquitted us. Look at vv13-14. “You, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Our new life wasn’t cheap. It came at the heavy price of the blood of the Son of God. Our sin created an unpayable debt, and stained us with obvious guilt before a majestic and perfectly holy God. Our independence and rebellion stand witness against us, formally charging us before God, the righteous Judge, with crimes punishable by death. We are literally unable to comprehend how completely without hope we would be in this world without Christ.
But God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
The debt created by our sin is staggeringly large. But Jesus steps between us and the Father, and offers His infinite resources to pay that debt on our behalf. In the insignificance of our personal power and worldly philosophies, we would quickly drown in the vast ocean of our sin. But in the abundance of Christ’s sinless perfection, our guilt is completely washed away — if we die to ourselves, cast off other gods, and trust completely in Him.
For those of us who have turned from our sin and thrown ourselves on Christ in faith, God has done the unimaginable. Where we once stood bankrupt, we now enjoy abundance. Where we once stood formally accused with no right to mercy and no hope of even a reduced sentence, we are now declared innocent and set free.
It was for this freedom that Christ bled and died and rose again. Paul’s goal in this passage is to shine a spotlight on that, so that we can see its incomparable value. And if we truly grasp that, then what could possibly be enough to entice us from Christ’s freedom back to the bondage that is all the empty philosophies of this world have to offer!?
V. God has triumphed for us (15)
God has filled us, consecrated us, resurrected us to new life, and acquitted us of our guilt. And in v15, we see that He has gone so far as to “disarm the rulers and authorities, and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Christ].”
Friends, the reality is that there is an enemy of our souls. He rules this world and wars against us. He lies to us about who we are and about what’s important. He whispers in our ears that God is not good and that He cannot be trusted. He accuses us before the throne of God, and makes it his goal to see us chained, devoured and destroyed.
But he is also already defeated. Christ has triumphed over him.
God has declared us righteous, and declared our accuser impotent. God has set us free, declared that we are his adopted children and heirs. And then turned on our enemy, stripped him of all authority, and subjected him to open shame. We are rescued from the shame of our sin, but satan will never escape his shame and guilt. He may be the master of lies now, and his voice is very seductive. But God is assuring us in this passage that every lie satan has ever told will someday be exposed, and we will see him for the small and shameful and utterly defeated thing that he is. We need not fear him, and we certainly need not be drawn to him. Instead, we are called to victoriously resist him in Christ’s name.
God’s triumph over evil is so complete that evil will someday be subjected to ridicule and open shame. But perhaps even more important is that these “rulers and authorities” have totally lost their power. God has disarmed them. Imagine ripping the fangs out of a poisonous snake. The greatest power that satan and his demonic hordes have is what you give them in your own heart.
So don’t listen to the enemy. Don’t be deceived! Don’t get distracted! And don’t let him convince you that anything is valuable if it would position itself between you and Christ. Satan’s goal is to make you a slave. But you are NOT a slave. You’re the child of the King!
Primary Claim Statement (Restatement)
In Christ, all the fullness of deity and all authority dwells in bodily form. You have been filled in Him, consecrated to His service, given a new life, acquitted from your guilt, and witnessed His triumph over your enemies! God says: You are mine! Don’t let anything else capture your heart!
Paul knew that we are easily deceived, easily trapped, easily enslaved. The Colossians faced subtle and attractive ideas. And so do we. But we must not be distracted, and we must not let anything enslave us. We fix your eyes on Christ, because we belong to Him!
Throughout His ministry, Jesus saw many followers walk away because His message was too difficult for them. At one point, Jesus ask the 12 if they too wanted to turn back – to turn away to other things. And I’d like to close with Peter’s response from John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!”
As it was with Jesus and His disciples and with Paul and the Colossians, so it is with us. I ask you tonight, “Where else would we go, when Jesus alone has the words of life?”