Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power, (vv. 8-10)
Scripture nowhere condemns the acquisition of knowledge. It is the wisdom of this world, not its knowledge, that is foolishness with God. Philosophy is but worldly wisdom. It is the effort of the human mind to solve the mystery of the universe. It is not an exact science, for the philosophers have never been able to come to any satisfactory conclusion as to either the “why” or the “wherefore” of things. “The Greeks seek after wisdom,” we are told, and it was they who led the way for all future generations in philosophical theorizing. Before a divine revelation came it was quite natural and proper that man should seek by wisdom to solve the riddles that nature was constantly propounding. But now that God has spoken this is no longer necessary, and it may become grave infidelity. From Plato to Kant, and from Kant to the last of the moderns, one system has overturned another, so that the history of philosophy is a story of contradictory, discarded hypotheses. This is not to say that the philosophers were or are dishonest men, but it is to say that many of them have failed to avail themselves of that which would unravel every knot and solve every problem, namely, the revelation of God in Christ as given in the Holy Scriptures.
Plato yearned for a divine Word—logos—which would come with authority and make everything plain. That Word is Christ of whom John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And again, “The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (author’s translation). The Word is no longer hidden. We do not need to search for it. “The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart:… that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Socrates pondering the, to him, unsolvable problems relating to possible future rewards and punishments, said, “It may be, Plato, that the Deity can forgive sins, but I do not see how.” No such perplexities need trouble any honest mind now, for what philosophy could not explain, the gospel has made clear, that gospel in which is revealed the righteousness of God for sinful men. Apart from this divine revelation the wisest philosopher of the twentieth century knows no more in regard to the origin and destiny of man than the Attic philosophers of so long ago.
Two great systems were still contending for the mastery over the minds of men in the Western world when Paul wrote this letter to the Colossians—Stoicism and Epicureanism. The one said: Live nobly and death cannot matter. Hold appetite in check. Become indifferent to changing conditions. Be not uplifted by good fortune nor cast down by adversity. The man is more than circumstances, the soul is greater than the universe. Epicureanism said: All is uncertain. We know not whence we came. We know not whither we go. We only know that after a brief life we disappear from this scene, and it is vain to deny ourselves any present joy in view of possible future ill. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” To many of the former class the Christian message appealed, and one has only to read 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 or Philippians 4:11-13 to see how readily Paul’s message would lay hold of an honest Stoic. With Epicureanism, Christianity had nothing in common. But while the Stoic might find in Christianity the fulfillment of his heart’s yearning, there was not in his philosophy anything the Christian needed, for everything that was best in that system he already had in Christ.
Besides these two great outstanding philosophical schools there were many lesser systems among both the Greeks and Romans, all of them seeking to draw away disciples to themselves. The Gnostics embodied parts of all the different schools of thought in their new system. From the weird guesses embodied in the Pythagorean fables down to the evolutionary theories of the present time, the church of God is still in conflict with these vagrant philosophies.
Against all such the Christian is warned. “Beware lest any man spoil you [i.e., lest any make a prey of you] through philosophy and vain deceit.” These may make a great show of learning, and their adherents may look down with contempt from their heights of fancied superiority upon people simple enough to believe the gospel and to accept the Holy Scriptures as the inspired Word of the living God. But with all their pretentiousness they are simply the traditions of man, the rudiments or elements of the world. The apostle thus expresses his contempt for mere reasoning in comparison with divine revelation. These systems that claim so much were after all but elementary. It was the ABC of the world offered to those who were in the school of Christ and had left the kindergarten of human tradition far behind. “Can a man by searching find out God?” Impossible. But God is already known in His Son.
It is most important that Christians should see this, particularly the young men who are called of God to be ministers of His Word. It is a sad commentary on conditions in Christendom that in the average theological seminary far more time is given to the study of philosophy than to searching the Scriptures. A minister of an orthodox church said recently, “I could have graduated with honors from my seminary without ever opening the English Bible.” Thank God^ this is not true of all such training schools, but it is true of perhaps the majority. The result is we have today thousands of professed ministers of Christ, many of them unconverted, and others who, though children of God, have been so stunted and hindered by their philosophical education that they are utterly unable to open up the Scriptures to others, for they are so ignorant of the Word themselves. Christianity owes no debt to Greek, Roman, Medieval, or Modern philosophy. It is like the Bible itself in this—
A glory gilds the sacred page;
Majestic, like the sun,
It sheds a light on every age,
It gives, but borrows none.
A man can be a well-furnished minister of Jesus Christ who has never heard the names of the great philosophers, whether pagan or Christian, and who is utterly ignorant of their systems and hypotheses, providing he will “study to show [himself] approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). The truest culture, intellectual or spiritual, is that which is drawn from the constant study of the Bible. How often as one comes in contact with men of most gracious personality, gentlemanly appearance, high spirituality, and well-trained intellect he finds upon inquiry that they are like John Wesley, “men of one book,” and in some instances, hardly conversant with the literature of earth. And in saying this I do not mean to put a premium on ignorance, for as mentioned in the beginning of this address, the knowledge of this world is not under the ban.
The Christian may well avail himself of any legitimate means of becoming better acquainted with the great facts of history, the findings of science, and the beauties of general literature. But let him never put human philosophy in the place of divine revelation. If he studies it at all, and there is no reason why he should not do so, let him begin with this—God has spoken in His Son and in the Holy Scripture He has given us the last words upon every question that philosophy raises. Browning was right when he wrote:
I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ,
Accepted by the reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it,
And has so far advanced thee to be wise.
When the Savior revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman she found her every question answered as she gazed upon His face.
“In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” We have already seen in a previous lecture that this word pleroma, “fullness,” was a favorite term of the Gnostics. It represented to them the sum of the qualities of Deity, and with them Christ was but one of many stepping-stones or intermediaries leading up to the pleroma. But here we learn that not only are all the attributes of God seen in Christ, as Arius afterward thought and as Theistic philosophers everywhere admit, but the very essence of the nature of God in all its entirety dwells in Him.
All that God is, is fully told out in Christ. He could say, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” So that we may say without hesitation, if any ask as to the character of God, that God is exactly like Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, and in Christ all the fullness of Deity dwells in a body, so that when at last we come into the presence of the Father we shall find in Him one known and loved before, not a stranger still unknown and possibly unknowable. J. N. Darby was thinking of this when he wrote:
There no stranger-God shall meet thee!
Stranger thou in courts above:
He who to His rest shall greet thee,
Greets thee with a well known love.
“Confessedly great is the mystery of piety, He who hath been manifested in flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, proclaimed unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory” (1 Tim. 3:16). God is revealed, He is no longer hidden. All His glory shines in the face of Christ Jesus. This solves at once for me as a believer the mystery of the universe.
And that which seemed to me before
One wild, confused Babel,
Is now a fire-tongued Pentecost
Proclaiming Christ is able;
And all creation its evangel
Utters forth abroad
Into mine ears since once I know
My Saviour Christ is God.
In verse 10 we are told, “And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power.” The word complete is literally “filled full.” In Christ dwells all the pleroma of Deity, and we have our pleroma in Him. We do not need to go elsewhere for illumination or information. “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:16-18). This revelation floods our being with rapture, fills our cup of joy, and satisfies every demand of the intellect. We are filled full in Him. I would suggest that it is not the believers’ standing exactly that is in view here. We have that in Ephesians 1:6. There we are told we are “accepted in the beloved.” In that sense we may be said, of course, to be complete in Him, but Colossians 2:10 is rather our state. It is the state of those who have found every need met in Christ, who is the Head of all principality and power.
It has already been pointed out that “principalities” and “powers” are terms relating to different ranks of spiritual beings. In a pretended knowledge of the nature and office of these glorious intelligences, the Gnostics reveled and placed them high above Christ Himself who was, according to them, but one who introduced the initiate into the fellowship of this great serried host leading on up to the invisible God. But the truth is the very opposite, for all the principalities and powers (and these may be good or evil, fallen or unfallen) were created by Him and for Him in whom all the fullness dwells, and He is the Head of all angelic companies as well as human beings.
No place too high for Him is found,
No place too high in heaven.
God would have His people ever realize that He who stooped to the depths of shame and suffering of the cross for their salvation is as to the mystery of His wondrous Person, God over all, blessed forever.
It will be observed that verse 10 does not complete the sentence, which is carried right on in verses 11-12. But as what follows is intimately linked with the next subject for our consideration, I leave them now to take them up in the next address, only observing that it is immediately after the declaration of Christ’s Headship over all angels that we are told of the depths of His humiliation. For God would never separate the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. But He would have us remember that it was because of His transcendent character and His true Deity that He could undertake the work of purging our sins when He gave Himself a sacrifice on our behalf. He had to be who He was in order to do what He did.
The settlement of the sin question could never be effected by a created being. The issues were too great. Of all men it is written, “None of them can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him, for the redemption of the soul costs too much. Therefore, let it alone for ever.” This is a somewhat free translation, but authorized by the best Hebrew scholars. It emphasizes what is here brought before us. Low thoughts of Christ result from low thoughts of sin. When I realize the enormity of my iniquity I know that only the Daysman for whom Job yearned can save me from such a load of guilt. He, because He is God and Man, can “lay his hand upon us both,” and thus by making atonement for sin bring God and man together in holy, happy harmony.
…Can a mere man do this?
Yet Christ saith, this He lived and died to do.
Call Christ, then, the illimitable God,
And so we may conclude with this tremendous truth: God has no other answer to all the questionings of the mind of man as to spiritual verities than Christ, and no other is needed, for Christ is the answer to them all. He who refuses Christ refuses God’s last word to mankind. He has said everything He has to say in sending Him into the world as the Giver of life and the propitiation for our sins. To turn from Him is to refuse the living incarnation of the Truth and to shut oneself up to error and delusion.