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Lesson 9: Avoiding Spiritual Deception (Colossians 2:1-5)

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January 3, 2016

We live in a time of unprecedented widespread deception. The past year saw 750 documented data breaches, stealing the private information of 178 million Americans. When identity thieves get your credit card numbers they can print up phony cards and take out cash or run up bills in your name. When they steal your Social Security number, they can file a tax form and steal your tax refund.

Telephone scammers prey on everyone, but especially on the elderly. The biggest scam is fraudsters who pose as agents of the IRS, telling people that they will be arrested or their property seized for back taxes if they do not pay up immediately. Another popular scam consists of people posing as employees of tech companies who tell you that your computer has a virus. They need remote access to your computer and your passwords so that they can “fix” the problems. And, for a fee, they will provide a year’s worth of “tech support.” (These statistics and examples are from an AARP email, 12/23/15.)

While these schemes can cost people financially, spiritual deception can result in a person’s eternal ruin. Satan has been employing his deceptive lies since the Garden. Warning the Corinthians about not receiving a false Jesus or a different gospel, the apostle Paul wrote (2 Cor. 11:3), “But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.”

Satan has used the false teaching of the cults to lure many away from the true gospel that the apostles preached. Invariably, these groups prey on unsuspecting, untaught people in evangelical churches. They use the Bible and claim to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. But they deny the trinity, including Jesus’ deity. They deny the gospel of Christ’s substitutionary atonement and salvation by grace through faith alone. Tragically, they lead their followers into eternal damnation.

As we’ve seen, false teachers were threatening the new Colossian church. They probably had not yet gained many followers—at this point Paul was still “rejoicing to see [their] good discipline and the stability of [their] faith in Christ” (Col. 2:5). But these wolves were mingling among the flock, so Paul was concerned. In our text, he gives them a dose of preventative medicine. He wrote these things “so that no one would delude [them] with persuasive argument” (Col. 2:4). To be forewarned was to be forearmed. Since the eternal destiny of precious souls is at stake, we need to heed his counsel on how to avoid spiritual deception. To sum up:

We avoid spiritual deception by being committed to a loving, Christ-centered church.

Before we explore Paul’s counsel, I mention that these verses could be expounded in a different direction. Paul is continuing to talk about his ministry (Col. 1:24-29). In Colossians 1:29, he said that he was striving according to God’s mighty power. In Colossians 2:1, he uses the same Greek word to tell his readers that he had a great struggle on their behalf, which he goes on to describe. So we could develop these verses along the lines of some vital principles for ministry:

(1) Heartfelt love and concern for the spiritual well-being of the church (including these people whom he had never met); (2) prayer (“struggle”) undergirding everything; (3) a strong emphasis on teaching the truth along with loving relationships; (4) being Christ-centered and Christ-exalting in such teaching; (5) warning newer believers about the danger of being carried away by false teachers who like to prey on the flock; (6) encouraging others to be disciplined and stand firm in Christ.

But you’ll have to work on those points on your own. I want to pursue the theme of avoiding spiritual deception, because it is no less a threat in our day than it was in Paul’s.

1. To avoid spiritual deception, recognize that it is a serious danger.

Over 40 years ago, Marla and I were mugged at gunpoint as we walked from our car to our apartment in Dallas, Texas. After that traumatic event, I never made that short walk without looking around for potential danger. I often saw women standing near where we were mugged, chatting together without a thought that they may be in a dangerous place. But after we were attacked, I was always alert and on guard. Even to this day, if I venture outside in a public place after dark, I keep my eyes open for possible attackers. If you’re unaware of potential danger, you’re more likely to fall prey to it.

The problem with spiritual deception is that it’s always more subtle and conniving than an armed, frontal attack. Paul warned that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light and his servants as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14-15). Satan doesn’t come in a red suit with horns and a pitchfork, laughing wickedly as he promises to take you with him to hell. He comes offering greater “light” on difficult issues. His servants are not outwardly, obviously evil. They pose as servants of righteousness, promising freedom, while inwardly they are enslaved by various lusts (2 Pet. 2:18-19). Jesus warned about wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). Their disguise enabled them to mix among the flock, but their aim was to destroy for their own gain.

In our text (Col. 2:4), Paul warns about those who would “delude you with persuasive argument.” They were promising “deeper knowledge of mysteries” and “secret wisdom” that would help you in your Christian life. But they were promoting a message that appealed to the flesh. They claimed to have a deeper philosophy than the simple gospel of faith in Christ. They claimed to be holier than the apostles because of their self-abasement, rules, and severe treatment of the body (Col. 2:23). But they were promoting a religion that feeds pride, not the message of the cross.

It’s amazing how many different false teachings and teachers continue to prey on the Lord’s flock in our day. I recently saw an article on a “Bible study” group in Colorado where everyone smokes pot (which is legal there and coming here soon!). The members testified that studying the Bible in traditional churches had always been boring to them, but when they smoke pot, they see new insights and the Bible is much more interesting. And a local pastor is helping them study the Bible without confronting their drug use!

Beyond that, the cults are as active as ever, going door-to-door in our neighborhoods and recruiting people by appealing to their “strong family emphasis.” Among professing evangelicals, there are “churches” that gather in bars and sip cocktails while they discuss the Bible and current topics of interest. Seeker sensitive churches avoid mentioning anything negative, such as sin or judgment, which might make seekers feel uncomfortable. Rather than explain and apply the Bible, they show movie clips and give self-help messages about how you can succeed in your marriage or career. They picture God as our Good Buddy on the journey, a “life-coach” who is there rooting for us, even when we sin. If we’re oblivious to these and many other deceptive schemes of the devil, we’re more likely to fall prey to them.

2. To avoid spiritual deception, be committed to a loving church.

Let me be quick to add that “loving” isn’t the only criterion! The cults draw people in by showing them “love.” Perhaps the most egregious example was the Children of God cult, where the women used sex to lure unsuspecting men into the group. But other less flagrant examples abound, where the cults offer lonely people a sense of belonging and fellowship. So love is not the only necessary quality to look for.

But it is an essential quality. Paul’s heartfelt love and concern for these believers whom he had not even met is evident. Although not directly stated here, his concern for them is similar to his concern for the new Thessalonian believers, where he compares himself to a gentle, nursing mother and to a loving, concerned father (1 Thess. 2:7, 11). In Colossians 2:2, he expresses his desire or prayer for these dear people, along with the believers in Laodicea, “that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself ….” That reminds me of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians (3:16-19):

… that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

In both prayers, Paul connects spiritual apprehension of God’s blessings in Christ with being a part of a loving fellowship of believers. F. F. Bruce observed (The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians [Eerdmans], p. 95), “Paul emphasizes that the revelation of God cannot be properly known apart from the cultivation of brotherly love within the community.” N. T. Wright (Colossians and Philemon [IVP/Eerdmans], pp. 94-95) explains, “Living in a loving and forgiving community will assist growth in understanding, and vice versa, as truth is confirmed in practice and practice enables truth to be seen in action and so to be fully grasped.” Our text implies three qualities of a loving church:

A. A loving church is a praying church.

Although it’s not directly stated, most commentators think that Paul’s great “struggle” for these believers whom he had not met was his struggle in prayer. He uses the verb related to that noun when he refers (Col. 4:12) to Epaphras, who is “always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers.” We get our word “agonizing” from this Greek word. It was used of wrestlers, straining every fiber in their bodies as they struggled to defeat their opponents. In Colossians 4:2-3, Paul specifically calls this church to prayer: “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well ….”

There are two things to take away from this. First, if you love people, you will pray for them. If they’re on your heart, you take them often before God’s throne of grace, asking Him to keep them from the many snares of this world and to help them to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. I encourage you to pray through our church directory. Even if you don’t know these people (Paul didn’t know the Colossians or Laodiceans personally), it puts them on your heart. When you meet them, there is an instant bond of fellowship if you’ve been praying for them.

Second, the word “struggle” implies that praying for others is not easy. If you find praying for others to be difficult, welcome to the process! As Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, we are doing battle against “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

B. A loving church practices heartfelt concern for one another.

Paul’s heart of concern for these new believers oozes through this text, and he wants their hearts to be encouraged or strengthened as they are knit together in love. True Christianity is a matter of the heart or inward person. It’s not about outward conformity or appearance, but about love for God and one another from the heart. It’s not about keeping up an image or veneer of righteousness by rules, but rather about how we think and live when others aren’t looking.

C. A loving church seeks the highest good of each person, namely, to know Christ and grow in Him.

As we saw in Colossians 1:28, Paul’s aim was to present every person complete or mature in Christ. Love seeks the highest good of others, which is, that the person knows Christ in a saving way and that he or she is growing in Christ. Since sin always destroys people, love means that if you see a brother or sister in sin or straying from the Lord, you go to them in a humble, gentle spirit and seek to restore them to the Lord (Gal. 6:1). If you hear a fellow Christian saying things that are contrary to sound doctrine, you talk with him and try to reason from Scripture to show him his error.

So to avoid spiritual deception, be aware of the danger. Be committed to a loving church. There is safety when you’re in the fold with the other sheep. If you venture out on your own, the wolves are waiting!

3. To avoid spiritual deception, be committed to a Christ-centered church.

In chapter 1, Paul has shown that as the creator of the universe and the head of the church, Christ is supreme over all things. He said that the riches of the glory of the mystery that God has now revealed is, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). In Colossians 2:2b-3, probably countering the false teachers who emphasized their secret knowledge of the mysteries of God, Paul comes back to that theme and says that he wants these believers to attain “to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” He also (Col. 2:5) commends their “good discipline and the stability of [their] faith in Christ.” Clearly, Christ and the gospel must be the center of a solid church. Note five things:

A. A Christ-centered church is a Bible-centered church.

The Bible is our only source of divine revelation about the person and work of Jesus Christ and the Bible is Christ-centered. The Old Testament points ahead to Jesus. As Alec Motyer asserts (A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Loving the Old Testament [Christian Focus], p. 19, 25), “Without the Old Testament, we could not know Jesus properly…. Without the Old Testament we would not understand our New Testament properly.” The Gospels tell us how God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The rest of the New Testament interprets and applies the person, teaching, and work of Christ. The final book of the New Testament, the Revelation, points to His second coming in power and glory.

So if a church is not centered on the Bible, it is not centered on Jesus Christ. If a church does not teach the Bible on a consistent basis, you will not be equipped to withstand the deceptive schemes of the devil. In a genuinely loving church, you will receive sound teaching, both from the pulpit and from mature believers. Sometimes, sound teaching will confront where your life is not in line with God’s revealed will. Don’t dodge that! It’s easy to find churches that tell you what you want to hear to make you feel good. You need a church that, like a good doctor, tells you what you need to hear for spiritual health and growth (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

B. A Christ-centered church is a spiritually discerning church.

Discernment is a scarce commodity in modern evangelical circles. If you advocate discernment, you’ll be accused of being judgmental or intolerant. When I first came here 23 years ago, one of the elders told me that I was arrogant because I had titled one of my sermons, “What the Bible Says About Abortion.” When I asked him to explain, he said, “You can’t be dogmatic. You can’t say what the Bible says about anything. You can only state your opinion, but be open to other views.”

I agree that there are some secondary matters where we must not be dogmatic and I agree that we must be kind and gracious when we defend the truth (2 Tim. 2:24-26). But I disagree strongly that we must be tolerant and accepting of diverse views on clear biblical doctrines and moral issues. Without sound doctrine and biblically-based discernment, God’s people will be “carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).

C. A Christ-centered church is growing to understand all the treasures of wisdom and understanding that are in Christ.

Paul says that full assurance comes from understanding and knowing God’s mystery, which is Christ (the best manuscripts omit, “of the Father”). When Paul says that Christ is God’s “mystery,” and that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are “hidden” in Him, he does not mean that these things are reserved for an elite, insider few. Rather, he is countering the false teachers, who appealed to people with their inside secrets. By “mystery,” Paul means truth that formerly was concealed, but now is plainly revealed for all to see. The Old Testament promised the coming Redeemer and King, but the specifics were blurry until Jesus came on the scene, much like we’re fuzzy on the details about end time prophecies that have not yet been fulfilled.

By saying that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are “hidden” in Christ, Paul is reflecting Proverbs 2:4-5, which says of wisdom, understanding, and discernment:

If you seek her as silver
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will discern the fear of the Lord
And discover the knowledge of God.

It takes some effort and diligence to mine out the riches that are in Christ. But the point is, He is our all-sufficient treasure for our every need. As W. H. Griffith Thomas states (Studies in Colossians and Philemon [Kregel], p. 78), “The only safeguard against error for the Christian is a full knowledge of Christ.”

D. A Christ-centered church practices unity on essential biblical truth, and loving tolerance on non-essentials.

“Knit together” sometimes means “instructed.” But it also means “knit or held together” (see Col. 2:19), which is probably the meaning here. But note that the unity is not divorced from understanding and true knowledge of Christ. As Paul states in Ephesians 4:13, 15, we are to attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God as we speak the truth in love.

There are core biblical truths that we must understand clearly and be willing to fight for and, if necessary, divide over or even die for. To compromise these truths would be to deny the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are other areas of doctrine and practice where godly people differ. While some of these areas are important for how we live, they do not jeopardize the gospel. We may debate these issues vigorously, but we must always regard the other person as a brother or sister in Christ and treat him or her with love.

E. A Christ-centered church is disciplined and stable in its faith in Christ.

“Good discipline” and “stability” picture a military unit that is disciplined in its fighting order, that has closed ranks so that the false teachers cannot break through. Sam Storms (samstorms.com) writes:

The word translated “good order” points to the well-ordered behavior of the Colossians. He has in mind lives that are aligned with biblical revelation, daily habits of life that reflect the values of Jesus, unwavering obedience to the will of God, no matter how unpopular or “unsuccessful” that may prove to be.

“Stability” is the opposite of trendy, flashy, or sensational. Stable churches don’t chase after the latest fad or church growth techniques. They don’t keep people hyped up with speculations about how close we may be to the rapture (because we can’t know exactly when Jesus will return). They don’t promote the latest self-help insights on how you can have a successful life, marriage, or career. Stable churches, frankly, are kind of boring! But we are to be stable in our faith in Christ. The biblical gospel is a sure foundation to guard us against spiritual deception.

Conclusion

In The Truth War [Thomas Nelson, 2007], John MacArthur argues that faithfulness to Christ demands that we fight for the truth of the gospel. But the modern evangelical church, swayed by the worldly emphasis on tolerance and “love,” has become apathetic to the whole concept of truth. In the introduction, he states (p. xvii), “Church leaders are obsessed with style and methodology, losing interest in the glory of God and becoming grossly apathetic about truth and sound doctrine.” He adds (p. xviii, brackets in original), “What we desperately need today are ‘shepherds according to [God’s] heart, who will feed [believers] with knowledge and understanding’ (Jeremiah 3:15; Acts 20:28-31).”

That’s what Paul was arguing for in our text. The enemy has many servants who are trying to delude you with their persuasive arguments to water down the truth about Christ. But you can avoid spiritual deception by being committed to a loving, Christ-centered church.

Application Questions

  1. Most people join cults because of relationships or feelings, not doctrines. What are the practical implications of this?
  2. Why are churches that emphasize love often weak on doctrine and vice versa? How can we lovingly hold firmly to the truth?
  3. Discuss: Is it arrogant to believe that you know the truth on specific biblical issues?
  4. How can we differentiate a major doctrine worth dividing over from a lesser doctrine where we need to show tolerance?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, False Teachers

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