As I read through Scripture, I am always looking to understand it better. At the same time, I am listening for God to speak to me. In the process, I notice things. Like today. I noticed Paul’s statement to the Colossians:
I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.Colossians 2:4 ESV
Hmmm… the delusion of plausible arguments. That’s an interesting phrase…
Paul is writing to the people in Colossae, a very Greek city. He had already been to Athens where the Athenians and foreigners who visited the city spent their time telling and listening to the latest ideas. (Acts 17:21)
In our modern view, we might imagine an ancient think tank in which new ideas are explored and developed toward some greater ends. We might be tempted to see Athens as an incubator of ideas for the benefit of mankind.
Luke, the writer of Acts, was not being complimentary, however, when he made this observation. The context suggests a contrast between a desire for novel ideas and a desire for truth. Ideas for the sake of ideas and novelty for the sake of novelty may be an erudite pastime for the bored elite who enjoy comfort and privilege, but they are not noble pursuits in themselves.
Unless one has a desire to know truth, entertaining new ideas is only an exercise in futility, diversion and delusion. The ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, writing about a millennia before Paul set foot in Athens, recognized “there is nothing new under the sun” – even back then. (Ecc. 1:9) Chasing after ideas that are new for the sake of novelty is just a distraction from the truth. It is meaningless!
Paul views the sharing of ideas for the novelty of them in the same way modern people might play video games or read a book – entertainment to pass time. He had no time for such things.
Truth had been revealed to Paul in the form of the risen Jesus, whom his people had crucified, and Paul had persecuted. Paul’s whole life was interrupted and set off on another course one day as he traveled with the intention of arresting and imprisoning Christ followers in Damascus.
Paul’s life would never be the same. By the time Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians, his motto had become “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. (Phil. 1:21)
If we can tell anything about the biographical and autobiographical sketches of Paul in Acts and his letters, we can see that Paul was fiercely and uncompromisingly concerned about truth. That attitude led him to persecute the followers of Christ with zeal when he thought the truth lay in that direction.
It was Paul’s commitment to truth that prompted him to turn in the opposite direction and accept Jesus whom Paul had persecuted as his Lord and Savior. Paul gave himself completely to be a servant of the risen Lord to the point of sharing in his own body the sufferings of Christ, as he described to the Colossians. (Col. 1:24)
Paul’s turn of phrase, perhaps, is what caught my eye as I read through Colossians this morning: the delusion of plausible arguments.
Merriam-Webster defines the word, plausible, to mean “superficially fair, reasonable, or valuable but often specious” and “appearing worthy of belief”. The Cambridge Dictionary defines plausible to mean “seeming likely to be true, or able to be believed”, adding that “a plausible person appears to be honest and telling the truth, even if they are not”.
In the context of the letter, Paul is concerned that some people were attempting to persuade the Colossians that God had no intention of revealing Himself to the Gentiles, as Paul had preached. Paul is concerned that the Colossians might turn away from the hope that “God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of this mystery, which Christ in you, the hope of glory”. (Col. 1:27)
Paul encouraged them: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Col. 2:6) And he warned them: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Col. 2:8)
Many arguments are plausible. Many arguments are made today: that aliens exist; that Jesus of Nazareth never lived; that Jesus didn’t die on a cross or rise from the dead. People argue that God is dead; that an infinite number of universes exist in which an infinite variety of realities play out in an infinite variety of ways.
Paul ultimately appeals to “Christ in you” to the Colossians, saying, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus, so walk in him.” Paul appeals to their shared experience, which is Christ, the risen, living Lord. The shared experience of the presence of Christ and of the Holy Spirit was front and center in the world of First Century Christians.
“Philosophy and empty deceit” are contrasted to the reality of Christ in them. Christ in them was the hope they had. They were sealed with the Holy Spirit who moved collectively in them to guide and encourage them. Ideas disconnected from reality and the experience of real life may be fanciful diversions, but no one should be led astray by them.
Paul wasn’t likely speaking of Greek philosophy here, however. He was likely addressing the Jewish claims that Jesus was not their messiah, that Gentiles cannot follow God apart from devotion to Mosaic law. Paul is talking here not about ideas for the sake of novelty but dogma for the sake of tradition.
While Greeks indulged in an orgy of ideas, Hebrews clung dogmatically, religiously and stubbornly to their ritualistic past. Not that they were wrong to have have carefully preserved Mosaic law, but they missed the very point of it – it pointed to the necessity and the coming of Christ. They were the fundamentalists of their time.
Jesus is not just a new idea, and Jesus is not reducible to rules about eating and drinking and ritual observances. Jesus is the substance, and those things are only shadows. (Col. 2:17) Jesus is the reality of which religious observance is only a specter. Jesus is the reality for which ideas are like hands groping in the darkness.
Once we have experienced the reality of Christ in us, we let go of Him at risk of being swept from our mooring into the dark and swirling sea of a chaotic and shadowy world. The ascetism of self-made religion has the appearance of wisdom – it appears to be an anchor – but it fails to grasp the reality of the real Anchor, Christ in us. (Col. 2:21-23)
As I think about the delusion of plausible arguments, I think of my own journey. I loved the academic life of college where arguments are pursued like Greeks at in the markets of Athens. I think of my own experience of Christ in me to which I have held and continue to hold, despite the winds and waves that have threatened to undo me.
I think of the times I have been tempted by the seeming certainty of “elemental rules”, regulations based on human traditions that have the “appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism”, but which have “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh”. (Col. 2:23) These things puff up the man who lives by them; or they tear him down when he fails.
Christ in me is my hope. I hope in the author and the perfecter of my faith. I seek to walk with He who began a good work in me, and who I can trust will complete what He started. I yield, and I yield again, to the risen, living Christ who died for me that I might live.