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Watch out for Snakes

by Pastor Dave Wilkinson

Jeremiah 10:1-10,Colossians 2:8-10

August 8, 2004

It was a terrible decision for me to have to make. I was only five years old.

On the one side of the street that led to my kindergarten lived the Purple Lady. She lived in a purple house. She wore purple house dresses. She drove a purple car. She hated kids. She used to yell at for walking in front of her house on the way to school. Everyone knew about the Purple Lady.

On the other side of the street was a row of tall sycamore trees above the sidewalk. These were not ordinary trees. I had been assured by some older kids that a boa constrictor had escaped from the zoo and had taken refuge in those trees. Every once in a while, when it got hungry, it would reach down and grab a kid who was just about my size. It would pull that kid up into the tree, wrap its coils and squeeze the kid to death before swallowing the whole pulpy mess.

Purple Lady, trees of doom? It was a terrible decision to make.

I usually chose the side with the trees. Even at five years of age, I think I guessed that the police wouldn't allow a kid eating snake to live in a tree in front of a school. I knew that the Purple Lady was real. I wasn't so sure about the snake. Still I walked pretty fast and wove from side to side to be a more difficult target.

C.S. Lewis comments in his essay, An Experiment in Criticism about deceptions like the snake story. He writes, "No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling he truth. The un-blushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women's magazines"

In out text today, Paul warns us about deceitful snakes - not boa constrictors in trees but lying snakes who would try to suck the joy right out of our Christian lives.

In Colossians 1:12-14 Paul tells us that we "have been set free in Christ." That is what Jesus has done for us. To Paul it is an amazing and tragic thing that people who have been liberated by Jesus could even consider submitting themselves to a new and disastrous slavery.

Paul begins his warning in Colossians 2:8 by drawing a vivid picture of the false teachers who are after the young Colossian believers. He speaks of "anyone who will carry you off as his spoil." The Greek word there is sulagogein and could be used of a slave-dealer carrying away the people of a conquered nation into slavery. Paul states that we are to "see to it" that this does not happen. In other words, we have a choice. We can use our brains.

We need to use our brains because our brains are the focus of the attack. Back in verse 4 Paul writes that he is "telling us things so that no one will deceive us by fine-sounding arguments." Now, in verse 8 he warns, "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and basic principles of this world rather than on Christ."

This is the only time the word philosophy appears in the entire New Testament. Now please notice that Paul is not telling us to beware of Philosophy in any form. The word "philosophy" means "love of wisdom". This is a good thing.

Some people hear Paul's words and distrust anything that smells like a philosophical discussion. But Paul is not against education or the discipline of philosophical inquiry. In Acts 17, we see Paul engage in philosophical debate with the Athenians. He shows himself to be a master. We need such masters.

Paul is not anti-intellectual. He is one of the great minds of the ages. He is not down on philosophy. He simply knows that as important as it is, philosophy can be bogus. As C.S. Lewis observed in The Weight of Glory, "Good philosophy must exist for no other reason than because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The learned life then, is, for some, a duty."

Paul is not against philosophy. What Paul does say is that we must beware of "hollow and deceptive philosophy." He is cautioning us that not every idea is a good idea. Not every new thought is a true thought. Hollow and deceptive philosophy can come from people intent on destroying us, or it could come from people who love us. We have the responsibility to be alert and aware. Your spiritual life depends on your heeding these warnings.

In the information age we live in, it is increasingly important for us to sort through the information we receive. We need to distinguish between that which is true and that which is false. Our times are much more dangerous than ever before because people are now experts on how to sell an idea. We are experts at packaging and presentation. And at this same time the discipline of logic has been abandoned and people are much less prepared to think through a slickly packaged proposition.

The media have an incredibly seductive influence on the culture. All teenagers are impacted by what they see on television. Robert Pittman, the founder and chairman of MTV, once sad, "At MTV, we don't aim for fourteen-year-olds; we own them!" Pretty scary.

In Colossians 2, Paul warns the people of Colossse that those who sell bottled doctrine may sound good and look harmless. But they are, in fact, peddling death. They are pushing spiritual steroids.

I mean, who wouldn't like steroids on the surface? A young man wants to play football. He sees the difference that weight training makes. Imagine being told this little pill would make you stronger and more intimidating.

But there is a problem. Doctors have discovered that steroids have a rebound effect. The same pill that at first makes you stronger will eat away the very body you thought you were developing. You consume them; they consume you -- not just for a few years, but for life. If you give in to the salesman who is peddling muscles in a bottle, it can kill you.

It's the same with false teaching. False teaching comes in many forms. For the Colossian it is what Paul calls the elementary principles or spirits.

The Greek word for "elemental principles," stoichea is one of the more difficult New Testament words to understand and translate. But the idea of being basic is prominent. The phrase can refer to the letters of the alphabet -- as we would say, the ABCs of life. It can also be used to describe the elements which make up reality - fire, air, earth, water as the ancient Greeks believed. Relevant to our day is the fact that the word was sometimes used for the signs of the zodiac, which were given a kind of spiritual authority like angels or divine beings.

Now we deal with issues that are different than those that faced the Colossians. Their problem was a blend of Greek philosophy and Jewish custom. But there are always issues. We have our own issues. That's why Paul writes in Romans 12:2 that we are not to allow ourselves to be squeezed in the mold of the age in which we live. We don’t need to guard ourselves against the threat the Colossians faced. But we need to be very aware of the ones we face.

“Don’t allow yourself to be squeezed in the mold of the age you live in. We hear Paul say it. But generation after generation, the church has allowed itself to be squeezed.

For example, the medieval church persecuted scientists like Galileo. Galileo wasn’t persecuted because the church leaders believed in the authority of the Bible. It was because they believed in the authority of Aristotle. Aristotle had taught that the sun revolves around the earth and Aristotle must be right. The medieval church gave in to bad philosophy that had nothing to do with Christ.

In the 1950's, when I was a child, the pressures of the age were different. There the issue was Anti-Communism. The result was that, in my Sunday school classes, I was never sure quite where America ended and Jesus began. Nobody else was sure either.

At the dawn of the 21st Century we face a spirit of our own age as well -- and the false teachers that with it. The sprit of our age is an arresting combination of humanism, materialism and a vague spirituality with no demands -- all shaped by the media and under the general banner of post-modernism. We have, as a nation, embraced technology but have turned our backs on logic and reason in favor of image and sensation. We are drugged with pleasing, pleasurable sensations that pass for solid thought.

Michael Crichton's book, Timeline, portrays a character who finds our entertainment crazed society less than filling. Crichton’s character speaks of our fascination with what's cute and cuddly, easy to absorb, and mind numbing.

He proclaims, "Today, everybody expects to be entertained, and they expect to be entertained all the time. Business meetings must be snappy, with bullet lists and animated graphics, so executives aren't bored. Malls and stores must be engaging, so they amuse as well as sell us. Politicians must have pleasing video personalities and tell us only what we want to hear. Schools must be careful not to bore young minds that expect the speed and complexity of television. Students must be amused - everyone must be amused or they will switch: switch brands, switch channels, switch parties, switch loyalties.

"In other centuries," he continues, "human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but boredom. A sense of time on our hands, as sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused."

In this, we tend to be swayed more by personality or presentation than reason. A presentation stirs us and so we accept it as true.

You must not accept something just because some celebrity says it is true. Phil Jackson, latye coach of the late Lakers is a big follower of Zen Buddhism but the fact that he is a successful coach doesn't make his beliefs true.

You should not accept something just because I say so. And we should not believe something just because it is written by Max Lucado, R.C. Sproul, or Chuck Swindoll. We must evaluate what people say on the value of what is said -- not by who says it.

I want you to understand. I care about truth. I work hard every week to weigh the things I say by God's Word. However, I know that some hollow and deceptive philosophy surely creeps into what I teach. And it also creeps into what you teach and believe as well. Our only safeguard is a careful and thorough knowledge of God's word. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:5 that we “must take every thought captive to obedience to Christ.” The moment we let our guard down, we are trouble.

I have to say that I very much appreciate the direction of our youth ministry under the leadership of Bil Thompson and his staff. The youth have a lot of fun. They enjoy each other. But the purpose of the ministry is much more than entertainment. It's there to help the students learn to think biblically for themselves. That is essential. Most of them will head to universities where great claims are made and much falsehood is mixed in with the truth.

Lloyd Ogilvie, retired pastor of First Presbyterian Hollywood wrote: "The vast auditorium on the university campus was jammed. We were waiting eagerly for one of the world's great scholars, an expert on the Dead Sea scrolls, to lecture. He was a little late. One of the deans filled in the time by telling us about the university. "On this campus," he boasted, "we have the potential to solve all human problems." "Ridiculous," I thought. "What about the fighting in the sociology department over promotion and tenure? How stable are the marriages of your psychologists?"

"We can solve all human problems," the dean claimed. He bowed to the shrine of education and scholarship and showed us who his god was. That dean was a religious man. And we are all religious people.

The question is, who or what is our God?”

Jeremiah 10:8 says something very interesting about false teaching and heresy. Jeremiah talks about the false prophets having a "discipline of delusion" -- an organized system.

In modern terms, the false teachers go to each others' seminars read and review each others' "scholarly works. They give each other awards. They are serious. They are hard working. Their idols, as Jeremiah 10:9 describes them, are impressive. They are the work of skilled people. The false teachers are skilled with ideas. They are skilled with words. They happily agree with each other.

But all that agreement doesn’t change he fact that they are wrong. For the Lord, Jeremiah 10:10 declares, is still the true God. All the words, seminars and books in the “discipline of delusion” haven’t changed a thing.

And God still says, “I am that I am.” I’m not what you think I am but who I am"

In Colossians, Paul identifies this hollow and deceptive philosophy as that which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. Paul’s point is clear. A false teaching will always present itself as a new discovery of some hidden truth. But it is really something that comes from the mind of people. It has a common characteristic: it leads us to depend upon something or someone other than Christ. False teachings will always encourage us to be more dependent on ourselves, or our systems. They will always turn us gradually away from complete dependence on our Savior.

Discerning false teaching is difficult. But there are some things that are usually true:

First, it will be subtle. False teaching is not a blatant disavowal of accepted belief. It is usually an exaggeration of some kernel of truth. It is one element of truth taken to an extreme. Most false teaching will not stand up and scream "This is a teaching that contradicts the Bible." Instead it will take a portion of the Bible and misuse it. It will take one element of the truth to an extreme that discounts the rest of the truth. It is distortion.

Second, it will be attractive. No one will follow something they find abhorrent. So, false teachers will package their teaching in very attractive terms. They will emphasize people's potential to achieve. They will focus

on material and personal benefit. They will appeal to people’s inner desire to be "as God" (the same desire of Adam and Eve in the Garden.)

Third, they will promise to give us something more than simple faith in Christ can give.

Gnosticism, a heresy that was the focus of Paul's concern in Colossae, emphasized a "deeper experience." The Gnostics promoted a "secret truth." So notice that Paul follows up his caution with the words, "for in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ. . ." We don't need anything else. God has given us everything in our Savior.

It is in Jesus that the fullness of God dwells. What else do we need? Why search for our meaning for life elsewhere? Why create additional intermediaries or intercessors? That's what Paul wants the Colossians to settle once and for all. And so must we.

Jesus is head over all rule and authority. He is over all laws. He is over all spiritual powers. He is over all nature.

Don't worship the stars - worship their creator. Don't worship your ideas - worship the One who gave you your brain.

We need to be honest about the things we add to Christ for our security. He is not the fullness of God for us if we continue to need something or someone else to fill the core emptiness. Paul assures us that from the fullness of God in Christ we have fullness.

There are a lot of great things in life. But what you are looking for at the core, at the center, can only be found in Jesus Christ. I know you have been told that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. But it does matter.

It may be true that there are two sides to every question. But, as was observed in the Christian Medical Journal back in 1977, “it is also true that there are two sides to a sheet of fly-paper, and it makes a big difference to the fly which side he chooses.”

In Jesus you have already been made complete. What are you looking for?