When the Powers Take Over – NT

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When the Powers Take Over

The Experience of the Church

Colossians 2:6–19

In a previous article, I examined how supposedly Godly people become enmeshed in behavior that is obviously evil. I illustrated this through the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, as well as the contemporary story of a Mennonite farmer turned drug lord.

I also looked at the perils of leadership in the Old Testament and asked the question, “Can a king be a truly Godly leader?”  Essentially, the answer came through two major prophets in early Israel. Samuel’s answer was “no.” He told the people that a king would simply lead them into a similar form of slavery that God had just delivered them from in Egypt.

Moses’s answer was “maybe.”  In Deuteronomy 17, he spelled out the things must and must not do to avoid an evil outcome. Then in the very next verses in Deuteronomy 18, Moses prophesied that such a Godly leader would indeed come to Israel. That leader was Jesus of Nazareth, proclaimed the Jewish Messiah and the Lord of the nations.

Thus, in the New Testament, we have the story of the culmination of God’s huge plan of salvation. While the coming of Jesus as the Savior and Messiah occurs in the midst of God’s historic people, Israel, it becomes clear that this salvation of God has implications for all people, everywhere and for all time. In the Roman world that proclaimed Caesar as “Lord,” followers of Jesus proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord.” Thus, Jesus becomes the one who demonstrates the power of God overcoming all of the powers of the day in both the Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile) world. Jesus is indeed Messiah and Lord.

But how does this Greco-Roman world with it many gods, come to know about the one true God and the Son of God that he sent into the world. That message, in large part, comes through a Jew called by God to be this cross-cultural messenger. This Jew who grew up in the  big secular city of Tarsus was called Saul in the Hebrew language, but known as Paul in the Greek-speaking world. He is the major cross-cultural preacher of this Good News, the Gospel, of Jesus Christ as the Savior Messiah and Lord of all nations.

Paul inspired others to help in this proclamation and to establish churches throughout the Roman empire. We get the benefit of Paul’s letters to these budding churches and I’m going to examine a short section of to one of these letters to the young church plants.

In the city of Colossae, there was a group of people who had received salvation, who had received Jesus Christ as Lord of their lives. They had been saved from their own kind of slavery, a slavery to the power of traditional religions and their demonic forces that dominated their previous lives. Most of these people were apparently Gentiles (non-Jews) but Paul also points out the Jewish equivalent of “the powers” in Jewish life.

The main point is that in Colossians 2, it becomes obvious that the danger of being taken over by the powers of evil is the same as it was at the foot of the mountain in ancient Israel. The Golden Calf simply comes in a new form that still represents the old slavery to the powers of this world.

Colossians chapter 2 is a warning to beware of slipping back into old patterns. It is an admonition to avoid becoming enslaved again by the very powers from which they have been rescued.  It is a reminder that they have been saved–by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Let us look more carefully at some of the dangers that Paul points out in Colossians 2. Verse 8 gives us a starting list: 8 Watch out that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world, and not according to Christ.

What Paul mentions first is philosophy. At its root, the meaning of philosophy is the love of wisdom. The problem here is not that we shouldn’t love wisdom. The problem is the source of the wisdom that we love. If we love any kind of wisdom just because it seems wise, we end up ignoring the source of that wisdom.  And, in our world today, as in Paul’s day, God’s wisdom gets distorted by sinful and selfish human thinking and becomes simply human wisdom.

That leads to the phrase Paul uses next: empty deceit. Philosophy that is so distorted by human thinking becomes empty. When wisdom becomes disconnected from God, the source of all true wisdom, it is empty; there is nothing to it. Furthermore, it is deceptive. Separated from truth, such philosophy becomes a lie. It is empty deceit.

Paul further explains that such philosophy is according to human tradition. When philosophy has become detached from God’s wisdom, its only remaining anchor is human tradition. And human tradition is essentially selfish; it wants to keep things the way they are because they benefit me and my family, my race, my culture.

But the danger goes beyond simple human selfishness. Paul says such philosophy is according to the elemental principles of the world. What are these “elemental principles”?  We can get some insight by looking at just a few of the ways that this original word is translated in different versions. Several versions talk about “elemental spirits” (NRSV and ESV) Another version (NIV) evolves from “elemental spiritual forces” to “basic principles.” Still other versions call them “spiritual powers” (NLT) or “ruling spirits” (NCV) or “elementary principles.”

Suffice it to say that there are spiritual forces in the world that claim to be all-powerful and thus become separated from God. These powers may start out neutral and have there place in God’s universal order, but they soon assert themselves against God. These spiritual forces serve the cause of human selfishness and thus help some groups of people gain power over other groups. They take the place of God in human lives.

In today’s English language, these powers can be expressed as the “ism’s” of our day. Materialism becomes the power of material things in our lives. Capitalism becomes this economic system in which the power of money and the means of making money dominates our whole lives. Alternatives to capitalism such as communism or socialism or federalism or objectivism become captive powers in their own right. Some people descend into hedonism, the love of pleasure, or narcissism, thinking only of oneself and one’s own needs. Nations themselves descend into nationalism that says my nation gets my loyalty above all others, right or wrong.

In short, the isms of this world become associated with religious systems. Often, an idea or ism starts with God. But then it uses God for its own purposes. People take that idea and run with it until the idea becomes greater than God. In essence, humans abandon the one true God and make their own gods in their own likeness. This is essentially what the Israelites din in the story of the golden calf in Exodus 32.

The Apostle Paul could see this same dynamic coming to the new believers at Colossae. He says, 6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to walk in him…. It’s not enough to give lip service to Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Followers of Christ are to be 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught…”  They are to return to the basic teachings about Christ that they were taught. Instead of

operating in fear of the powers of this world, they are be abounding in thanksgiving.

Paul continues by drawing a contrast between the powers of this world which have their roots in human activity and the fullness of God which lives in Jesus Christ.

8 Watch out that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world, and not according to Christ.  Colossians 2:8

Human traditions lead us away from God. The isms and gods of this world demand our loyalty not just in addition to Christ, but ultimately instead of Christ.

To counter that attitude, Paul says that believers in Christ have every reason to trust in Christ and Christ only.

9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.

You don’t need some visual representation of God like Israel thought they needed with a golden calf. You don’t need an idol, the image of a national or city god in a massive temple in the city. You already have the image of God that you need in Christ. The fullness of God dwells in Christ, not in some human-created image.

Paul goes on to say that the power of God for our salvation is represented in the death and resurrection of Christ.

God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.  Colossians 2:13b-14

This also means that the powers are shown for who they are, subservient to God in Christ.

15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross].  Colossians 2:15

Paul says that this also affects our patterns of worship which are not to be controlled by past traditions of either Judaism or any of the pagan religions.

 16 Therefore, do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food or drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the body belongs to Christ.  Colossians 2:16-17

What the world says is “realistic” or “common sense” is really giving into a shadow god.

Paul goes on to say in verses 18-19,

18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, initiatory visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, He makes it clear that this kind of attitude strays from Christ as center. It is 19 …not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with a growth that is from God. 

Continuing to claim our salvation is to hold on only to Christ.

In our day, we also need to heed the words of Paul to the Colossians to watch out for the human philosophies and traditions which entice us. We need to be aware of the powers of this world which attract us to them and away from our center. The fullness of God’s revelation, the essence of who God is, is found in Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord. Let us continue to walk in him.

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