The world thought the cross was a humiliating defeat, but it was Jesus' great victory.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Colossians 2:4-15
We must avoid the pull of a false teacher because salvation is found only in Jesus. Jesus triumphed over the forces of the world. Jesus paid the price of our sin. Jesus removed the barrier between us and God. All of that happened on the cross, the one-time symbol of defeat and humiliation. Why would we go to any other source for truth and fulfillment?
8 Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition
There's an awful lot in this week's passage, and my notes go long.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Internet Hoaxes, Misinformation Campaigns, and Electronic Scams
Let me set the stage for this opening topic: Do you trust the news? According to a recent Reuters survey, only 29% of Americans say they trust the media. (So, should we trust the survey? 😎) That's disastrous! Basically, people believe that American news media is biased, manipulating stories to push an agenda. Based on my discussions with many of you, you feel that way. There is unbiased reporting of the facts out there, but we have to search for it. And sometimes we can be fooled...
Social media has contributed to the mistrust because social media can spread misinformation and hoaxes quickly. (That's part of the backlash that Facebook is facing right now in court. Do a news search for "Facebook India" and you'll be horrified.) Let me share one example that's close to home for me: Jose Altuve of the Astros was rumored to have been wearing an electronic buzzer during a World Series game in 2017 (this is connected to the Astros cheating scandal from that year), an accusation that went viral on social media. Well, every investigation has said that he was not, but many baseball fans still believe he was, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, and have harassed him to no end.
So, that established, let's get to the discussion.
Have You Been Fooled By Social Media "News"?
Have you ever believed a social media post that was later revealed to be a lie or a hoax? What was it, and why did you believe it?
Let's start here. Photoshop really changed the game for internet hoaxes. Did you fall for any of these photos (all are faked)?
Let me take you through them -- (1) that's a stock photo of a bear photoshopped into a staged photo; (2) that's a lion having a cat scan at a zoo; (3) that's a sculpture; (4) that's the same photo (not 10 years apart); (5) that's all photoshop; (6) that's all photoshop.
Not only did I fall for that lenticular cloud photo, I used it in one of these Bible study notes pages years ago. What other photos have you fallen for over the years?
The newest riff on that theme is called deepfakes. The one that first comes to mind for me is the video of an Obama speech that wasn't Obama, but Jordan Peele working with video software to call attention to the growing problem of deepfakes.
A deepfake uses machine learning to manipulate a video, usually replacing a face or a voice. Most examples are obvious pranks, but they can be (and have been used) to make it seem as if someone has said something they didn't. Notable targets have been Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi. Here's an amazing example that I got from Wikipedia -- a deepfake ad intended to show the dangers of deepfakes and misinformation (it never aired):
Wow! If I were just surfing through Facebook and stumbled across that, I would certainly assume it to be real.
We could take a detour down misinformation campaigns (so-called "fake news"). But this might send you off on an unnecessary detour (for example, the COVID vaccine is a big target for misinformation campaigns; can you keep your group on-task through that kind of topic?). Instead, you might use this handy graphic I found on a news website called TheConversation (which I had never heard of, but whose partners include Texas A&M and UFlorida and Georgia State):
If you're reading this on your phone, here are the types of misinformation listed:
Clickbait -- where the content doesn't match the headline
False context -- where true information is taken out of context
Manipulation -- like Photoshopping a photo to change it
Satire -- like TheOnion, but people have to realize it's satire
Misleading -- where information is twisted
Imposter -- where sources are flagrantly impersonated
Fabrication -- where something is simply a lie
Propaganda -- where content is presented so as to sway attitudes
Sponsored -- where an ad is disguised as an editorial
Mistakes -- where a news agency simply gets it wrong
You might hate to believe this, but there are people out there who simply lie on social media for no reason other than they can get away with it. Don't believe me? Let's transition to the final part of this intro (the PSA part):
According to the FBI, Americans were scammed out of $57 million in 2019 in phishing attacks -- when someone claims to be someone else, but in reality they're just lying to you so they can take advantage of you. Have you ever received an email from a Nigerian prince who just needs your bank account info and he will send you all kinds of money? Yeah, that's a lie.
They might look legit. They (at a glance) look like they come from a legit source. But they're lies. And if you click on any of the links, you'll be taken to a fake website that steals all of the information you give it. Or if you open the attachment, it will install a virus on your computer that steals that same kind of information.
Annoyingly, now you get phishing scams on your phone via text.
[PSA time: Here's the rule I try to bludgeon into my family: if you receive an email or a text that asks you to click on a link or download an attachment, don't do it. Seriously, I'm that absolute. Here are the rules to follow next:
If it's a person in your contacts (someone you know and trust) and the context of the message is reasonable, check the Reply To email. If you don't recognize it, that's a red flag. Hover over the link to see exactly where it's taking you. If it's not exactly what you expect, that's a red flag.
If you have any red flags, rather than opening a link or an attachment, contact that person directly and confirm that they sent it to you.
If it's not someone in your contacts, don't open it. If it seems important, find a way to contact that person directly and ask them.
If it's a business, this is more often cut-and-dried. Businesses will never ask you for private information in something like an email or text. That's your first red flag. If there are grammatical mistakes, that's a red flag. If the Reply To or the link aren't exactly right (i.e. it wants to take you to facelook.com), that's a huge red flag.
If you am concerned that the email or text might be legit, rather than open the email or text, contact that business directly and ask them about it.
When I make the contact, I usually say something like "Hey -- I got an email/text from you that I haven't gotten before, and I wanted to clarify what you were asking."
Don't trust electronic communication. It can be easily fabricated.]
Why Do We Fall For Fake News and Phishing Attacks?
Here's the biggest question for this opening topic. Why do we fall for that stuff? If you've fallen for it, do you remember why? How did it work on you?
Here are (in my opinion) the most likely reasons:
We are naively trusting. If someone comes to us claiming to be an authority, we might default to believe them. That's dangerous. (But the opposite problem -- believing nobody -- has also proven to be dangerous. Uh oh!)
We assume that a topic isn't hoax-worthy. That's like me with that cloud photo. Why would someone take the time to fake that? Well, it doesn't matter why they did it because it worked. I fell for it.
We like to think that we can't be fooled. I'm particularly bad about this. I think that I can spot the clues that something is fake, and sometimes I'm lax in doing my "homework". We should always investigate a claim for ourselves.
We fall for confirmation bias. When someone posts a story that lines up with what we want to believe, we tend to believe the story without investigating. That has been a central part of the vax/anti-vax campaigns.
And that's nothing new! In 1869, a New York man claimed to have unearthed the petrified remains of a 10-ft man ("the Cardiff Giant") while digging a well. The professionals quickly identified it as a hoax (it was carved out of a giant block of gypsum), but the people rallied behind it after preachers started saying it proved the giants in the Bible. The perpetrator eventually outed himself, calling it a get-rich-quick scheme that would take advantage of people's religious fervor (he was an atheist). But Christians still defended the hoax.
We should be well aware that people in our world are going to lie to us to manipulate us or take advantage of us. Just like in the New Testament world.
Transition to This Week's Passage
There were people in Colossae who were trying to sway the Christians to believe lies about Jesus. And if the Christians weren't careful, they would fall for it. And here's why Paul was so concerned: not only would the Christians be giving their money away to charlatans, but they might also be giving away the souls of the non-Christians around them who would then be hearing a false gospel.
The world we live in today is obsessed with distorting Christianity. They craft fine-sounding arguments. They use Christian-like words and phrases. But it's all lies. There is only one source of truth in our world: Jesus Christ. He brought it from God and shared it with all of us through His followers who wrote His Word (illuminated by His Spirit).
It's very important that we read, learn, and understand the Bible rightly.
Where We Are in Colossians
This week's passage contains the focal verse of the letter (2:6-7).
II. Main Letter
A. Paul's Ministry and Purpose (1:24-2:5)
B. Spiritual Fullness in Christ (2:6-15)
C. Dangers of False Beliefs (2:16-23)
D. The Right Way to Live for Jesus (3:1-17)
E. Rules for Christian Households (3:18-4:1)
F. Be Wise in Christ (4:2-6)
The argument is quite simple: spiritual fullness is found in Jesus Christ, therefore we should build our live on Him and His truth.
This Week's Big Idea: Movie Magic
There's an easy illustration for this that you could use anywhere in this lesson: movie magic. Props. Sets. Designed to make you think they're real, but they're fake.
I love movies that rely on "practical effects", meaning not done in a computer but built in real life. The movie set of Hobbiton is incredible! It's also not "real" -- there's no house inside that hill!
And I love props too. For The Lord of the Rings, they built three different versions of each sword: a lightweight plastic version for carrying around (so as not to wear out the actors), a stunt version that was sturdy but safe to use in fights, and a "hero" version that was like a real sword except dulled. The point is that the actors weren't carrying real swords.
And look at that costume! It's beautiful! And also fabricated out of lightweight materials that wouldn't protect you in a real fight. That "chain mail" is made out of plastic rings. Those "metal pauldrons" are made out of plastic. All carefully crafted to look as real as possible. If they wore real armor, the actors would be worn out after an hour of shooting!
You probably have a prop or a replica somewhere in your house. Bring it with you as an easy lesson how a fake/replica is nothing like the real thing, no matter how real it seems.
Application: There is no substitute for Jesus Christ!
Part 1: Continue (Colossians 2:4-7)
4 I am saying this so that no one will deceive you with arguments that sound reasonable. 5 For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ. 6 So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to walk in him, 7 being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.
Remember that Paul hasn't met this church in person, so all he can really do is make an appeal. His appeal is to what he said in last week's passage -- the Colossians can judge whether or not to listen to Paul by looking at the fruit of his teachings:
Paul is willing to be imprisoned for what he teaches; how about those other teachers?
Paul's goal is the good of the Colossians -- their unity, their strength, their understanding; those other teachers are in it for themselves.
Paul is openly teaching; those other teachers are secretive and manipulative.
Paul's teachings focus on Christ; those other guys, not so much.
Paul received his teaching from Jesus; those other guys made it up themselves.
How easy is it to create an argument that sounds reasonable but is false? Very!
For example, what's the problem with this argument:
All basketballs are round.
The Earth is round.
Therefore, the Earth is a basketball.
If you really want to be blown away, here's a document from the University of Madrid that describes almost 100 "fallacious argument" types. (The document includes examples of each type; the examples also reveal a bias on the part of the author. 😉)
As I said last week, if you have ever been visited by Mormon or JW missionaries, you know how "reasonable sounding" an argument can be. But what's the only reliable way not to be swayed by such arguments? You have to be a better expert than the person making the argument. That sounds impossible, right? No! I'm not saying you have to be an expert in Mormonism -- I'm saying that you have to be an expert on Jesus. And that just means studying the Word of God and building your relationship with Him through prayer and fellowship with His people. That's what Paul is telling the Colossians to do.
Paul is not saying that philosophy is bad, or "deep thinking" is bad. Paul is saying that uncritically accepting a philosophy (that turns out to be false) is bad. We are responsible for what we choose to believe.
According to verse 5, what is the antidote to such deception?
Being "well ordered" (disciplined)
Remaining firm in their faith in Christ
Those are both military metaphors. The Roman military conquered their empire through the superior discipline of their soldiers. You probably don't need me to explain this. Look at the formations below. They are nigh invincible if they hold rank. But what happens when somebody breaks rank? The entire formation crumbles!
How might those military metaphors apply to your spiritual life and your church?
Paul wants to encourage his readers, so he praises them for their discipline and their faith. Built into that is a tacit warning -- stay disciplined; stay firm. A unit could hold its formation for an entire battle, but if they break rank before it ends, they still all die.
And that leads to the primary verses in the letter. Paul offers a simple conclusion: if you received Jesus Christ as Lord, continue to live in Him. Christianity isn't a "phase" or a "chapter" of your life. It is your life for all eternity. (If you really think someone has "walked away" from Jesus, an important question is if they ever received Him as Lord in the first place.)
Obviously, you don't have all day to teach this lesson, but I think an important question to camp out on is "What does it mean to receive Jesus as Lord?" America went through this bizarre phase a few years ago where some people became obsessed with what they called "Lordship salvation". You may remember this. Essentially, people said "I had accepted Jesus as my Savior, but I still needed to accept Him as my Lord". I understand what they're trying to say: "I was a Christian, but I wasn't taking it seriously". Unfortunately, the argument led to real confusion. Here's the truth: if Jesus is not your Lord, He is not your Savior. Jesus gets to decide what it means to be Lord and Savior, not you. If you think of yourself as a Christian, that must mean that Jesus Christ is your Lord.
The operative words in verse 7 are "rooted", "built up", "strengthened", "taught", and "overflowing". It's a mixture of metaphors, but no one metaphor can capture all of the Christian life. Focus on the one that connects best with you --
Your Christian life as something that is being built
Your Christian life as something that is growing
Your Christian life as something that you learn
If you know building/construction, think about what it takes to build and maintain a strong, safe structure. If you know education/health, think about what it takes to help something grow healthy and strong and wise. Whatever those best practices are can be translated to the Christian life. But whatever metaphor you use, the product is gratitude to God.
Part 2: Be Careful (Colossians 2:8-10)
8 Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ. 9 For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ, 10 and you have been filled by him, who is the head over every ruler and authority.
Remember all those amazing things about Jesus we read in 1:15-20? This piggybacks off that, particularly 1:19, "19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him."
This leads to another easy illustration you can use: cheap substitutes. I'm not necessarily talking about "knock off" brands (although you can have so, so, so much fun with these) --
I'm talking about dangerous counterfeits. People will buy fake versions of designer perfumes that contain dangerous chemicals like aluminum, arsenic, and mercury. Or counterfeit car airbags that don't deploy properly. Or one of the worst problems in our country: fake medication. They're advertised as a completely perfect substitute, only cheaper. But in reality, they could kill you.
People claim the same thing about their substitutes for Jesus. What do you think?
That's why Paul brings back up the fact that the fullness of Deity dwells in Jesus Christ (the human). All of these philosophies and traditions, some person made them up. Do you want to entrust your eternal soul with some guy or with the God of the Universe? (This is why I've always been astounded at the continued existence of Scientology, whose founder was an actual science fiction author.)
As we said in our first lesson on Colossians, no human is inventing the doctrines of Christianity. We can barely grasp the edges of them ourselves!
And so on. Paul didn't make this stuff up. That would be giving him way too much credit. Rather, Paul has simply tried to pass along what he has learned from Jesus and through the Holy Spirit. (Don't spend too much time with "human tradition" this week -- we will look at that in much more detail in next week's passage. It means what you think it means. The most powerful human movie or song or poem or ritual or dance or whatever is still only human. It does not transmit divine wisdom to us, no matter how moved we are by it.)
But in Christ, divinity dwelt fully. Therefore when Christ spoke, God spoke (because Christ is God). You'll notice that Paul uses "Christ" rather than "Jesus" here (actually, he's been doing that a lot). That's because "Christ" is a title meaning "The Anointed One" whereas "Jesus" is Jesus' name. Paul is hammering home the point that Jesus is not "just Jesus", He is "Jesus Christ (the Lord)". It's a distinction that we might miss today because we're so used to both terms. But in that day, Paul's audience would have picked up on it.
Christ is "full" of divinity. Really, this phrase should be translated, "The fullness of divinity lives in Him (Jesus)." It's a permanent thing. And it is "bodily", meaning that Jesus really existed as a human. He has a flesh body, unlike what Gnostics would teach.
(Quick aside: deity vs. divinity. As you can imagine, people do not use these terms consistently. In my usage, deity refers to the identity of God, and divinity refers to the nature of God. I tend to use them interchangeably with respect to Jesus (sorry if that has confused you) because Jesus is both divine and deity.)
So, how have we been filled by Christ? This goes directly to the "abide in Christ" language we talked about last week (particularly 1:27-28). When we become a Christian, we are filled with Christ (remember, I interpret that to mean that the Holy Spirit dwells in us).
Important question: in what way are we filled with Jesus? Or, in what way do we have the fullness of Jesus? Does that mean that we are now divine (as some cults have concluded)?
In no way are we now "divine"! True divinity (in its actual, biblical definition) is self-sufficient. But we will always need Jesus.
Rather, this comment goes back to verse 8 -- a clunky literal translation would be something like "don't be someone who can be taken captive by someone's philosophy". Christians should never be swayed by a human thought or argument because we have everything we could ever need in Jesus. We have direct access to the fulfillment of every spiritual need in Jesus; we don't need these empty rituals and philosophies.
To make that even easier to understand, Paul reminds us that every human ruler and spiritual power is subject to Christ. Why would we go to them for fulfillment when we can go to Christ? Christ is all-sufficient!
Part 3: Remember (Colossians 2:11-15)
11 You were also circumcised in him with a circumcision not done with hands, by putting off the body of flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive with him and forgave us all our trespasses. 14 He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him.
To solidify his argument, Paul details three things that Jesus has done for us that no one else ever could:
He "circumcised" our spirits
He forgave our sins
He triumphed over all forces of evil
Why would we settle for anything less?
"Circumcision" is a very interesting image to use here. And because Paul seems to be putting it in parallel with baptism, it has emboldened people to defend the practice of infant baptism -- "the circumcised infants, so we can thus baptize infants". Weeelllll, about that. That's actually the opposite of what Paul was saying.
Circumcision was indeed important to the Jews (see Acts 15)! It was commanded of all Jewish boys (Gen 17:12-14, Lev 12:3). But circumcision could never save anyone, else how could any women be saved? It was a marker -- a symbol. But Paul found in that symbol a deeper spiritual meaning, namely the cutting away of a barrier (obviously, be mindful of your group's "stomach" before you decide to go into detail on any of that). We receive a "spiritual circumcision" in Christ, namely the "cutting away" of our "body of flesh".
What does "body of flesh" mean? Most often, you'll see people call that our "sinful nature". The problem I've always had with that interpretation is the fact that I still sin; how could my sinful nature be removed? All of that is pushing the language too far. Paul is simply making the point that the unclean part of us that made us unfit to come into the presence of God had been removed by Christ. (We tend to get in trouble when we try to push an illustration too far.) Now, there is more going on, but that comes next in the baptism illustration.
Remember that in the early church, Christians tended to be baptized as soon as they were saved, so there was a correlation between salvation and baptism. Baptism did not save (any more than circumcision did; see Eph 2:8-9)! But baptism also represented a deeper spiritual reality (kind of how Paul thought that circumcision represented something more than the Jews realized). This has to do with the "buried/raised" language which connects our baptism with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Obviously, water baptism by immersion is the method of baptism that best represents that:
(as this picture from Barwick Road Church illustrates).
Here's the important thing we learn about baptism in Colossians -- it's more than a public declaration. Many Baptists say that we are supposed to be baptized to make our faith public, and that's true! But baptism is more than a declaration. In baptism, we actually identify with Jesus' death and resurrection. There is a spiritual side to the ordinances that defies "simple human ritual/tradition" (very much like how Jesus called it "My body" and "My blood"). In baptism, we are buried "with Him" and we are raised "with Him". Yes, it's a symbol. But it's a symbol that's supposed to pack a real punch. There is no stronger distinction in our universe than the difference between death and life. And in Jesus, we have gone from dead to alive (something that water baptism by immersion can picture better than any other action).
Paul has already explained that Jesus' death has reconciled us with God (1:20, 22). But now he explains that Jesus' death and resurrection is a pattern that we can follow -- not literally but spiritually. That's what baptism is supposed to symbolize for us. When we go under the water, we die to our old life of sin, and when we are raised up, we have a "resurrection" to a new life in Jesus. Paul wrote about this a lot:
(Rom 6:4-12) 4 Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be rendered powerless so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, 7 since a person who has died is freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him, 9 because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over him. 10 For the death he died, he died to sin once for all time; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires.
(Gal 2:19-21) 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
(2 Tim 2:8-13) 8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead and descended from David, according to my gospel, 9 for which I suffer to the point of being bound like a criminal. But the word of God is not bound. 10 This is why I endure all things for the elect: so that they also may obtain salvation, which is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 This saying is trustworthy: For if we died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.
Baptism is supposed to be a reflection of what's going on in our spirits. Our old "body of flesh" shouldn't have any power over us. Now, the only power in our life should be Jesus. We should live "in Christ", and Christ should live in us. It's all very powerful wording.
A couple of weeks ago, we talked about the idea of living "in Christ". Have you had any further thoughts about it? What do you think it means now?
Paul then explains that Jesus' death was instrumental in forgiving our sins. There are difficult verses to translate. Here's that background image: when Adam sinned, he "died" (spiritually) -- he was dead to God. Likewise, before we come to Jesus for salvation, we are dead in our sins (to God). But when we come to Jesus for salvation, God "makes us alive" and "forgives our sins" which is one and the same action. Paul then gives us another way of looking at what happened (in addition to "cutting away that part of our life") -- He "erased our debt" ("cancelled our charges").
Some have interpreted this to mean that Christ "cancelled the Law itself", but that's not the case (see Matt 5:17). I think the way to look at this image is someone standing in debtor's court looking at the full list of debts, and someone comes in and pays our debt. He doesn't burn the courthouse down, he just pays our debt. Our debt to God (our sin) was an insurmountable barrier between us and God (insurmountable by us, but not by God, see Matt 19:26).
Some see the word "cancel" and think that it just disappeared (like a debt is just written off in bankruptcy court). No, the debt was paid in full. But because Jesus paid it all, our specific debt was cancelled to us. "Nailing it to the cross" is a powerful, poetic description of what Jesus did. It goes best with the next verse. Basically, it's a public thing. Crucifixion is intended to be the most humiliating public execution possible. By seeing that Jesus was put on a cross, Satan thought he had the most public victory over Jesus. But now we know that in fact Jesus had the most public victory over Satan (and all of the forces opposed to God) on the cross. The cross, the instrument of humiliation, became the instrument of forgiveness, the instrument of enabling human salvation.
There's plenty of disagreement over how to translate verse 15. I believe that "rulers and authorities" refers to all powers visible and invisible that oppose God. "Disarmed" simply means that Jesus removed their power (took away what made them dangerous -- see especially Heb 2:14-15). "Public spectacle" sounds strange to us, but it would have been a familiar image to Paul's audience.
When the Roman army won a battle, it would return to Rome in a victory procession ("Roman triumph"), marching through all of the towns with the triumphal general leading the way, the victorious soldiers following, and then the captured enemies bringing up the rear in shame.
The enemies of God intended the cross to be Christ's shameful death. Paul here reimagines it as Christ's victory chariot, so to speak.
This goes back to Paul's overarching theme for this passage: do you want to be aligned with the triumphant hero, or the vanquished enemy? Do you want to be on the side of Jesus, the immortal conqueror, or the fallen enemies?
There should be no hesitation on the answer.
So there you go. I pray that you are learning a lot of about Jesus in these passages!