Colossians: The Secret of True Spirituality
Dr. Roger W. Thomas, Preaching Minister
First Christian Church, Vandalia, MO
Introduction: Janet loves the Lord. She is active in her church. She works hard at trying to do what’s right. But she still struggles. She wonders if she is doing everything she should. One day two young men dressed in white shirts and riding bicycles knock on her door to offer some free religious literature. They tell her that their books and classes will provide answer sto all the questions she has. Their church knows the secret that no other religious group knows. Janet is curious. She wants to know the secret.
John also sometimes wonders if there isn’t something missing. In fact, even his Sunday School class at his church has had several debates recently along those lines. Some in the class have recently discovered the writings of a popular Bible teacher who promotes fasting and a special kind of prayer as spiritual warfare. They insist that these practices are the secret to spiritual victory.
Some of Susie’s friends have also discovered the secret. They just returned from a popular religious conference. For three days, they laughed. They cried. They were exposed to new forms of worship. The nationally known conference speaker addressed the causes of conflict in families and youth. Susie’s friends said it was all so much more practical than the plain old Bible lessons they were accustomed to. Had they discovered the secret?
Bill is a young Christian who still struggles with some of his old temptations. He began to wonder if he would ever be free of the old yearnings. Then a girl he met in his psych class invited him to a Bible study. Before the evening was over, the whole group was praying that Bill would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” When that happens, they assured him, he would speak in tongues and all his spiritual struggles would be over. Could that be the secret?
Some of Hollywood’s most famous stars claim to have found the secret. Celebrities like Demi Moore, Britney Spears, and even Madonna are regulars at a former church building in Beverly Hills. Every Friday a large group of Tinsel Town’s A-List stars gather at the L. A. Kabbalah Center. They sing loud, fast-paced hymns and shout hearty “amens!” The gathering is not an old fashioned revival meeting. In fact, it is not a Christian gathering. Kabbalah is a form of medieval Jewish mysticism. Kabbalah claims to offer the secret to spiritual enlightenment. It involves emotionally charged rituals, meditation that is supposed to produce visions and trance-like experiences, and a deeper spirituality. Kabbalah provides the secret to connecting with one spirituality. Once this connection is made outside behavior and secular involvements no longer matter. Kabbalah promises a more intense, secret spirituality without having to give up the world. No wonder Madonna likes it so much!
Is there a secret to spiritual power? A path to God that is unknown to most churches? Maybe some church leaders know the secret, but their job is to keep others from discovering it lest it become corrupted or misunderstood. That’s the plot of the incredibly popular book and the recent movie (directed by Ron Howard) based on the book. The Da Vinci Code claims to be a novel, but under the guise of a who-dun-it style mystery, Dan Brown’s bestseller raises questions about the historical reliability of the Bible and the normally understood message of the Christian faith.
The Da Vinci Code reveals the story of the super-secret Society of Zion that has kept the true story of Jesus under wraps for nearly fifteen hundred years. According to the plot, if the conspiracy is ever revealed the Christian faith would be shaken to its roots. The secret, according to the Da Vinci Code, includes the fact that Jesus didn’t die on the cross. Instead he marries Mary Magdalene, fathers several children, and moves to France. There he reveals to his wife and children the true secrets of spiritual power. The fictional story revolves around the struggles between the insiders and those who want to let the secret out. Rest assured the allegations of the Da Vinci Code are neither new nor secret. None the less, the suggestion of an alleged secret truth about Jesus has been enough to sell millions of books in dozens of languages. Everybody, it seems, wants to believe there is a secret.
This brings us to our next book in our journey through the Bible. Colossians is one of the shorter books the New Testament. It contains only four short chapters, ninety-five verses total. Paul had never been to the ten year old Colossae church. Apparently Epaphras, one of his students from his Ephesus ministry, had planted the church. Listen to how Paul speaks of this Christian servant. “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit” (1:6-8). Toward the end of the book he adds, “Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis” (4:12-13).
Epaphras brings word to Paul of the good things happening in Colossae. Look at the opening of the letter. “To the holy and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace and peace to you from God our Father. We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints—the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you” (1:2-6).
But there also appeared to be a potential problem. We don’t know all the details. But apparently Epaphras and Paul were concerned that these first generation believers had become vulnerable to some unhealthy outside influences. The ancient religious world crawled with philosophers and teachers claiming to know the secret of spiritual power. Some were pagans who promoted allegiance to the old gods of Greece and Rome. Their incantations and potions produced trances and visions. These they insisted were evidence of spiritual power. Others were Jews who contended that without faithfulness to the Old Testament rituals and laws no one could truly know God. Others were devoted to a growing number of Greek mystery cults that held secret initiation ceremonies to introduce people to deeper spiritual truths that outsiders could never know.
Some or all of these had gotten the attention of the Christians at Colossae. Just like a lot of modern believers, many wondered if maybe these alternatives didn’t offer a secret not found in the simple Gospel Epaphras had learned from Paul and then preached to the Colossians. Listen to the key passage of the entire book. “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (2:6-8).
There is nothing new under the sun. Both then and now, the advocates of a super-secret spirituality promote the same message. Some don’t understand the implications of what they are saying. Others know exactly what they are preaching. Both kinds undermine three vital foundational principles of the Gospel. These foundations are what Paul emphasizes in this little letter.
First, Colossians reminds us that true spiritual enlightenment is not a special secret reserved for insiders. Paul never uses the word “secret.” But repeatedly, Colossians calls the message of Jesus is a mystery. But here’s the difference. It is a revealed mystery!
“I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:25-27). “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2-3, see also 4:2-3).
The message of Jesus is the secret of God. But it is open to anyone through God’s revelation. Beware of anyone who claims to know something more. Colossians warns, “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (2:18-19).
Proponents of a super-secret spirituality falsely claim that the knowledge of God is a secret available only to insiders. Nonsense, Colossians says. the secret is out! Secondly, Colossians reminds us that our faith is all about Jesus. He is not just the beginning. He is the whole thing. False teachers often suggest that who Jesus was, what he did, and what he taught points us in the right direction, but there is much more to knowing God than knowing Jesus. Most smart cult groups then and now never attack Jesus. They don’t deny him. They just demote him to something secondary. He is a good start, but only that, they say.
This is the big theme of Colossians. Ancient and modern false prophets follow all kinds of strange twists and turns to undercut the authority of Christ. Some say he was just a man, a great human teacher. Some say he was the first to find the true path to enlightenment. We can all become like him once we know the secret. Others insist he was an angel or maybe even a ghost. His flesh and blood was just an illusion. The Son of God could never die on a cross, they say.
Colossians will have nothing to do with such thinking. Listen to how it warns against all such false notions. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant” (1:15-23). “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority” (2:9-10). “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (3:1-4).
Anyone who advocates a secret spirituality that goes beyond Jesus is a false prophet—even if he claims the special messages come from the Bible or from the Holy Spirit. Jesus wasn’t just a good beginning. He is the whole thing! Stick with him!
The true secret has already been revealed. Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the key. Finally, Colossians teaches us that true spirituality is all about how we live here and now. It is not about escaping the normal, everyday physical world. There is no higher plane of spirituality that exempts a person from normal responsibilities and morality.
That’s the heart of his warning in chapter 2. Jewish legalists and pagan mystics both suggested that real spirituality could be reached through special rituals or secrets forms of fasting and self-denial. These made day to day ethical matters unimportant. “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (2:16-23).
Note that last phrase—those things don’t have any value for restraining sensual indulgence. What does? Look at the beginning of chapter 3. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory”(3:1-4).
What does true spirituality look like? It puts off sin like dirty clothes and puts on basic Christ like behavior like a fresh set of garments. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, the wrath of God is coming” (3:5-6). “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (3:12-14). True spirituality is not about living above the real world. It is about living a Christ-like life in the world!
Conclusion: Is there a secret to knowing God, living a victorious spiritual life, and overcoming the downward pull of the world? Yes and no! No—not if you mean going to some new conference, experiencing some super-duper emotional mountaintop, or discovering a yet unexplored religious truth. That’s not where it’s at. It is not secret at all. It has been there all along. Unfortunately a lot of people look right past it because it is too ordinary and too available to common people. It doesn’t make you a part of an elite. It doesn’t make you feel special or more important than others. It just makes you grateful.
For a lot of people, it is a secret only because they have overlooked it for far too long. It is an open secret. God has revealed it. It is an open book. It is all about Jesus. The simple truth is anyone can know God fully and live with God forever by believing the message of Jesus, accepting the Lordship of Jesus, and living as a disciple of Jesus. That’s all there is. And that’s no secret. Not any more!
***Dr. Roger W. Thomas is the preaching minister at First Christian Church, 205 W. Park St., Vandalia, MO 63382 and an adjunct professor of Bible and Preaching at Central Christian College of the Bible, 911 E. Urbandale, Moberly, MO. He is a graduate of Lincoln Christian College (BA) and Lincoln Christian Seminary (MA, MDiv), and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary (DMin).