Beware of Being Cheated by Philosophy and Empty Deceit - Page 2 of 2 (series: Lessons on Colossians)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

Which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces{a] of this world rather than on Christ. Once interpreters took the Greek word translated here as “elemental,” to mean the ABC, or elementary principles, of religion; but it is now commonly believed that, since these “elements” are now rivals of Christ, Paul is thinking of “elemental spirits,” or angelic beings,” supposed to inhabit the stars and control human destinies. The Gnostics believed that the angels and the heavenly bodies influenced people’s lives. Paul’s warnings to the Colossians about “new moon” and other religious practices determined by the calendar (Colossians 2:16{e]) may be related to this Gnostic teaching, though the Jewish people also watched the calendar (Galatians 4:10f). One thing is certain: such teachings about demons and angels were not part of true Christian doctrine. If anything, such teachings were satanic. The fact that this teaching doesn’t line up with what Jesus taught is sufficient to warn us against horoscopes, planetary charts, Ouija boards, and other spiritualist practices. The whole zodiac system is contrary to the teaching of the Word of God. The Christian who dabbles in mysticism and the occult is only asking for trouble.

The heretics at Colossae, like the Gnostics that came on the scene later, seem to have assumed the existence of a whole hierarchy of these beings, strung out as mediators between God and the world. In this hierarchy, it would appear, they gave Christ a place, though perhaps not the highest. Now, for Paul, as for any true Christian, there could be only one mediator, Jesus Christ, and therefore to assign him only a place, however exalted in a weird hierarchy of this sort was to hopelessly adulterate the Christian faith. So Paul insists here, as Peter is quoted as saying in Acts 4:12 that Christ’s is the only “name under heaven” whereby men may be saved. (Does all this talk about “elemental spirits of the universe” sound like so much mumbo jumbo which no right-thinking twentieth-century man could possibly accept? Then let us remember that some of our newspapers still think it good business to help their readers to look-up their horoscopes by supplying them regularly with the necessary planetary information. Moreover, it is pertinent to add that one or two of our modern deviationist Christian sects (religious organizations that deviate from accepted beliefs or policies) treat Jesus Christ much as did the heretics in Colossae.

These false teachers offer a philosophy which they declare is necessary in addition to the teaching of Christ and the words of the gospel.
1) It is a philosophy that has been handed down by “human tradition.” The Gnostics were in the habit of claiming that their special teaching was teaching which had been told by word of mouth by Jesus, sometimes to Mary, sometimes to Matthew, and sometimes to Peter. They did, in fact, say that there were things which Jesus never told the crowd and communicated only to the chosen few. The charge Paul makes against these teachers is that their teaching is a human thing; it has no basis in Scripture. It is a product of the human mind; and not a message of the Word of God. To speak like this is not the same as drifting off into fundamentalism, or submitting to a tyranny of the written Word, but to hold that no teaching can be Christian teaching which is at variance with the basic truths of Scripture and with the Word of God.
2) It is a philosophy which has to do with “the elements of this world.” This is a phrase which has often been discussed, and whose meaning is still in doubt. The word for elements is stoicheia and stoicheia has two meanings.
a. It means literally things which are set out in a row. It is, for instance, the word for a column of solders. But one of its commonest meanings is the letters of the alphabet, no doubt because they form a series which can be set out in a row. Because stoicheia can mean the letters of the alphabet, it can also very commonly mean elementary instruction in any subject. We still think of learning the ABC of a subject, when we mean taking the first steps in it. It is possible that that is the meaning here. Paul may be saying, “These false teachers claim that they are giving you knowledge which is very advanced and very profound. In point of fact it is knowledge which is unrestricted and simple because at the best it is knowledge of the human mind. The real knowledge, the real fullness of God is in Jesus Christ. If you listen to these false teachers, instead of receiving deep spiritual knowledge, you are simply slipping back into basic instruction which you should have left behind long ago.
b. Stoicheia has a second meaning. It means the elemental spirits of the world, and especially the spirits of the stars and planets. There are still people today who take astrology seriously. They wear signs of the Zodiac charms and read newspaper columns which tell them what is forecast for them in the stars. But it is almost impossible for us to realize how dominated the ancient world was by the idea of the influence of the elemental spirits and the stars. Astrology was then, as someone has said, the queen of the sciences. Even great men like Julius Caesar and Augustus, men as cynical as Tiberius, and as level-headed as Vespasian would not take a step without consulting the stars. Alexander the Great believed implicitly in the influence of the stars. Men and women believed that their whole lives were fixed by them. If a man was born under a fortunate star all was well, if he was born under an unlucky star, he could not expect happiness; if any undertaking was to have a chance of success, the stars must be observed. Men were the slaves of the stars.

Before leaving this verse, let me point out one more thing; these preachers of error did not come in boldly as did the Judaizers in Galatia; they were much more subtle and more insidious in their poisonous attack upon the truth. They did not publicly announce that the Gentile believers had to be circumcised and keep the Law―it would have been much better if they had, for then they would have been confronted like the Judaizers in Galatia. But these teachers were more cunning in their attack. They boasted that they possessed a deeper experience, a higher knowledge, and preached an ideal system made up apparently of Judaism and Gnosticism. Paul knew that if the Colossian believers listened to the teachers of error, they would lose their power, their testimony; their reward―and souls would be damned because of it.

Scripture and Special Notes
[a} Or the basic principles; also in verse 20
[b} (1 Corinthians 15:3) “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,”
[c} (2 Thess. 2:15) “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”
[d} (Galatians 1:14) “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
[e} (Colossians 2:16) “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.”
[f} (Galatians 4:10) “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!”

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