Colossians 2:8–10: Just One Word

January 30, 2015

Many years ago I saw a regional theater production of the Stephen Schwartz musical Children of Eden. A theatric rendition of the first few chapters of Genesis is certainly enough to bring me out on a Friday night! It was a fascinating interpretation of Eden, Adam and Eve, the snake, and the tragic human choice to sin against God’s will. What I remember most vividly is the form the temptation took:

The Garden on stage was fenced off around the edges, defining its parameters and focusing attention on God’s realm. But soon the snake starts talking to Eve, and introduces a new word to her vocabulary, the word “ beyond.” Look over there, Eve, beyond the fence is something you should examine! Yes, beyond the boundary that has limited your experience and deprived you of full knowledge. Yes, beyond this line is something beautiful, and bright, and so intriguing. It’s worth checking out!

The way Schwartz conveys the story, it is one word that opens the door to error. One concept just close enough to the truth but beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy opens the gates of Eden for her. The door opens not towards her enlightenment, it turns out, but to her exit.

The Apostle Paul understands the power of words, of rhetoric, and of ideas. If wrong (meaning incorrect) ideas lodge in our heads, the way out of orthodoxy is paved. Something along this line was happening in Colossae, though scholars disagree on which “wrong idea” was being promulgated there. Doesn’t matter. We all know that there are plenty of unsubstantiated but enticing ideas swirling about our airspace, so Paul’s word is just as important for us as it was to the first century church in Colossae:

8See to it that no one takes you captive through
philosophy and empty deceit (NIV: hollow and empty philosophy),
according to human tradition,
according to the elemental spirits of the universe (Gk. stoicheia),
and not according to Christ.
9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
10and you have come to fullness in him,
who is the head of every ruler and authority.

Paul’s first command in verses 6-7 was framed in the positive, an exhortation to continue our lives in Christ. The next command here is in the negative: “Be sure no one takes you captive . . ..” The language evokes a sense of urgency about preventing spiritual kidnapping. What makes a person vulnerable to such an attack? solitary travel, emotional neediness leading to gullibility, not paying attention to one’s surroundings, to name just a few factors. In spiritual terms, the Apostle Peter says elsewhere that God’s opponent (the evil one) is prowling like a lion to see whom it can devour (1 Peter 5:8). The image is apt here.

It is up to the believer to be on alert and to thwart intellectual captivity that uses “hollow and empty philosophy” as its snare. A strategy for spiritual safety includes traveling in groups, Christian fellowship that is rooted in biblical and historical faith; working through the events of life (with help if need be) that leave one scarred or hurt; continuing to learn from the Scriptures so you are very familiar with its vocabulary; and becoming aware of the hollow deceptions rampant within our culture. Do you hear the special word to the sojourner, the de-churched, those who are done with church? It is essential for our spiritual health to get back into fellowship that holds tightly to the gospel.

Paul here attributes the bad ideas not just to wayward, intellectually wandering humans, but to the stoicheia, the elementary principles of the spiritual realm that are opposed to Christ. He is telling the Colossians that they must reject the deceits and promises of an empty philosophy that are opposed to Christ’s person, work, and teaching.

Forget these other gods, Paul says, it is Christ in whom all the truth and goodness of deity dwells bodily! And you, my friends, have come to the spiritual place where you, too, find your spiritual completeness in him. Being found in him, you are aligned with the only One who has power and dominion over every other ruler or authority.

So just as one word, “beyond,” drew Eve and then Adam astray, so it is one Word, Jesus, who has brought us back to spiritual safety. With verses 3 and 4 of the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” we close:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.


4 Responses to “Colossians 2:8–10: Just One Word”

  1. Bruce Pope Says:

    The last three lines reminded me of a few lines from McDonald…The Utility of Death ” Wherein then lies the service of Death? … In this: it is not the fetters that gall, but the fetters that soothe, which eat into the soul. In this way is the loss of things…a motioning, hardly toward, yet in favor of, deliverance. It may seem to a man the first of his slavery when it is in truth the beginning of his freedom. Never soul was set free without being made to feel its slavery.” Ah…the tyranny of things! BBP

  2. emd5542 Says:

    Excellent teaching for us today. Thank you. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 also comes to mind.

  3. 1Cor.15:33 comes to mind with me.

  4. Jodie Gallo Says:

    Hi Mary,

    As I was reading your “word” post on Colossians, I noted the following comment: “scholars disagree on which “wrong idea” was being promulgated there. Doesn’t matter.”

    What doesn’t matter, not knowing the “wrong idea’, or that “scholars” disagree?

    What I like to do with Paul is read him from both ends towards the middle. To my knowledge it’s a trick best fleshed out by Kenneth Bailey. If you read Colossians this way, it is easy to conclude that the wrong idea Paul is talking about is the reversal to Scriptural legalism instantiated by the polemic over circumcision and the keeping of the other laws in Scripture that were assumed to be given by God and therefore non-negotiable.

    The central core of Colossians is book-ended with the words in 2:13 “When you were dead…” and in 3:1 “ Therefore if you have been raised up…” There he gets to the central teaching that the Gospel is not about the legalism of obeying rules and regulations proscribed in Scripture, but about being a living organism and clinging to Jesus as the head of the Body. Being dead and raised with Him in a new life.

    Paul believes that going back to legalism is a denial of Christ.

    Lest we get mired in a conservative vs. progressive debate here, I would want to add that Paul does not leave us with chaos, but rather he proscribes a new faith-based ethic that involves paying forward the Grace, Love and Forgiveness we have first received. Pragmatically it results in a much better manifestation of the Law because it is lived out in faith rather than obeyed. In other places he even likens “obedience” to Scripture to the obedience of rich children to their father’s slave who is their nanny and tutor. But when the children grow up, they become the owners of their father’s slaves, and can no longer be expected to obey that which they now own. We grow up. Our Faith matures. The relationship changes.

    That part of the message becomes more clear in the second half of Colossians as he works his way back in mirror complement to the first half.

    I think the point matters because it addresses our disappointment with the Church. In our society today, we are more likely to find secular non-believers than Christians in church who live a life based on Forgiveness. The Church has either reversed to Bible thumping Legalism, or is watering down, to the point of making it infantile, the revolutionary un-orthodox premise of a life based on first dying to the spiritual, physical, and psychological ruts we are dead in, and then rising up again, as new free persons, here and now, and forever more. Jesus has become too soft and cuddly, or has been replaced by a harsh and judging God.

    I think that’s the missing reality and missing authenticity, the missing sharp edge that leads people to walk away from the Church. Sometimes angry, but in the end, just indifferent.

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