Lecture 9: Illustrate the Process
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To illustrate the proper steps in examining a passage of Scripture, Colossians 2 is explained and the steps applied
Course: How to Read Your Bible
Lecture: Illustrate the Process
The passage we want to look at in this session is from Colossians 2. I’ll read it for us and you can follow along in your Bible in your translation and then we’ll look at the different parts of it here.
“Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord so walk in him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in him and established in your faith just as you were instructed and overflowing with gratitude. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men according to the elementary principles of the world rather than according to Christ. For in him all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form and in him you have been made complete and he is the head over all rule and authority and in him you are also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ. Having been buried with him in baptism in which you were also raised up with him through faith in the working of God who raised him from the dead, and when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us which was hostile to us and he has taken it out of the way having nailed it to the cross when he had disarmed the rulers and authorities, he made a public display of them having triumphed over them through him.”
We are not going to go in depth here. We’re going to just focus on a few verses. What I want us to do is to get the big picture of how we would take a passage like this and then walk through the process of Bible study or even if we’re reading. As you learn these steps of Bible study and they become second nature to you - and if you have a Bible dictionary next to you or some type of computer program at hand - what you’ll find yourself doing is as you’re reading and you come upon a word that you don’t understand, you’ll pop over and use that tool real quickly and then go back to your reading, even though you’re not doing in depth Bible study at that point.
II. Steps in Bible Study
A. Choose the text and prepare spiritually
Where do we begin with Bible study? That left-hand column in the chart says that we want to choose the text and prepare spiritually. When we approach Bible reading or Bible study, the condition of our hearts is very, very important. If you go back to what we talked about earlier in the seminar - Jesus’ parable of the soils - the whole point of that parable was the condition of a person’s life and heart. Is it in a place where it can be receptive to the Word? And I share with you that if I’m struggling with Bible reading or Bible study or Bible memorization, then one of the things I try to look at in my own life is: What are the things that are distracting me? Jesus says that the cares of the world, the desire for other things, the desire for riches - those are things that choke out the Word. So I try to look in my life and ask: Is there something here that is stopping me spiritually so that I’m not receptive to what God would say to me through the Word, and causing me not to hear it?
So the first thing that we want to do if we’re doing Bible reading or Bible study is to bring our hearts before the Lord, even if it’s just to breathe a prayer in a couple of sentences to say, “Lord, I’m open. I pray that you would teach me through this.” I think that condition of our heart is very, very important for us to begin there. And, incidentally, when I’m going to be teaching or preaching a text, I try to make a habit of doing that as well, of bringing my life before that passage and saying, “Lord, is this real in me? I pray that you would affect me today, that you would speak to me through your Word even as I’m teaching and sharing it with somebody else.” So we want to begin by preparing our hearts spiritually, getting our lives open and, of course, we’ve already zeroed in on the passage that we’re going to do today.
B. Study the backdrop
After we’ve laid the foundation of choosing the passage and preparing spiritually, what comes next? What’s that second column all about there? It's to study the backdrop, and there are two aspects of backdrop that we want to look at. We want to look at historical background and there are several things that we’ll look at there. And then there's the literary context. And you really have two different things - the historical background and the literary context.
1. Historical backdrop
If we look at those two aspects of the backdrop of the text, what do you know about Colossians? What do you know from memory about the background of Colossians in terms of historical backdrop? Remember those different aspects of background we’re looking at – authorship, recipients, date, things like that. Well, Paul was writing a letter to the Colossians. Do you know had Paul ever visited the Colossians before? Had he ever seen them? He had not. This was a church that was like a satellite where one of the people he had ministered to, probably in Ephesus, was a person who went back and helped found that church. So Paul had not actually seen the people in Colossae.
What else do you know about Colossians? Remember that it was here in Asia Minor. If you look at the map, you will find Laodicea, Hierapolis, and Colossae, all there in a valley together. Colossae was known for the sheep that it grew at one time, the specific kind of wool that it had. Now if we’re looking for more detail about the background, let’s zero in on one aspect of the background here and that's the teaching or the philosophy. That’s what we’re going to focus our study on today. And this reading that you have here is from the New Bible Commentary which is edited by D. A. Carson. And notice just this little blurb on the teaching itself. Now if you looked at the broader article here, it would talk about the date, where Paul was when he wrote Colossians, different things like that. But just for a moment we’ll zero in on just the aspect of the teaching because that’s where we’re going to focus today.
The teaching was set forth as philosophy in 2:8 based on tradition and expression that denotes its antiquity, dignity and revelation which was supposed to impart true knowledge. Paul seems to be quoting slogans of the opponents in his attack on the teaching. At 2:9 - all the fullness. 2:18 - delighting in false humility and the worship of angels. 2:21 - Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch! And 2:23 - self-imposed worship; false humility and harsh treatment of the body. Further, observation of these taboos in the philosophy was related to obedient submission to the basic principles of the world - the "elementary spirits" as the RSV translates it in 2:20.
How are these unusual features to be understood? Scholars do not agree completely about the nature of the teaching. Basically, the heresy seems to have been Jewish because of the reference to food regulations, the Sabbath and other rules of the Jewish calendar. Circumcision is mentioned (2:11), but did not appear as one of the legal requirements. But what kind of Judaism? It does not seem to have been the more straightforward kind against which the Galatian churches had to be warned, but was one in which self-discipline and mysticism were featured and where angels, principalities and powers played a prominent role in creation and the giving of the law. They were regarded as controlling the lines of communication between God and humankind and so needed to be placated by keeping strict legal observances.
Now we’ve gotten to the point in our process of Bible study where we’ve just taken a brief look at an article on the backdrop. But notice that already this article is zeroing in on our passage that we’re studying. And it seems to be a very central passage for the book in understanding a problem that Paul was addressing. So we have the historical backdrop and we access that very simply by looking at a Bible dictionary that was at hand.
2. Literary context
In terms of literary context, that same Bible dictionary gives a basic outline. Our passage is here in the middle. The remedy for error - Christ in all his fullness. Notice on the other side of it is Paul’s mission and pastoral concern. So this is right after Paul expresses his mission and his concern for the Colossians, and it’s right before a section on freedom from legalism. So this section that we’re looking at in 2:6 and following is dealing with this heresy, this false teaching. And right after this, Paul is going to go into a section on freedom from legalism and it is like a one-two step there. If you have wrong thinking, it’s going to lead to some wrong actions and wrong behavior. We could even say harmful actions and behavior and patterns in our lives. So from a literary context standpoint, the passage that we’re looking at is about the substance of the teaching itself and what’s wrong with it. And then Paul is going to move on from there to talk about patterns that become problems in our worship and our religion if we’re not right-headed about our teaching. Does that make sense?
C. Make observations on the central concepts, main verbal ideas and connectors
So far, we’ve looked at historical backdrop and literary backdrop. Another thing we want to do when in the process of Bible study is to look at different translations and see how they these different translations can help us zero in on some of the key issues or key terms.
1. Central concepts
Take a minute and read Colossians 2:8 in these three translations (NAS, ESV, NLT) and tell me what sticks out to you - maybe by the differences that are here, or some things that we could zero in on as central concepts. Remember, when we’re trying to identify central concepts, we want to identify those things that seem to be pivotal. It may be something that’s difficult to understand or a question raised. In translations, this may show up in something being translated in very different ways in the different passages. So why don’t you take a look at this just for a minute and tell me some of the things that you would want to zero in on.
One issue would be elementary principles or elementary spirits? What else? The idea of philosophy - the NLT translates it “empty philosophy.” Anything in terms of differences? As we’ve said before, the more literal translations are best as a foundation for Bible study because as you move toward the functional equivalence translations like the NLT, they are really giving you a very specific slant on interpretation. But remember, all translations are interpretive. Right now the point of this is to compare and see where those differences show up.
Well, a couple that I picked out for us to look at are exactly what you said with the elementary principles, but there's also the idea of taking captive. The NLT puts it as “lead you astray with empty philosophy.” These are related.
In observation, we want to identify the backbone of a passage and the main verbal ideas and then the main connectors, both the formal connectors like conjunctions and also the logic relationships between the different parts.
So what I want to ask you to do is to read this passage and take just a minute and identify what are the main verbal ideas here. Not necessarily just the main clauses, but the main verbal ideas as you’re looking at your Bible. You might even want to go through and circle or underline those, and the main conjunctions, connectors, and the kind of relationship those conjunctions point out between the different parts of the passage.
Although normally, we want to identify the main clauses over against subordinate clauses and all that, but for this exercise, just begin by trying to identify those main verbal ideas and let’s see how it gives a backbone structure to the passage.
2. Main verbal ideas
What are some things that you identified? What are some of the main verbal ideas that we have here in the passage? One is the idea of taking captive. Then also “see to it.” This is an exhortation, a command Paul is giving us here. But those two ideas really work together, don’t they? See to it that no one takes you captive. You have an exhortation. What is the exhortation? That no one take you captive by philosophy and empty deceit. What else? What are other verbal ideas that are important here? Yes, "we’ve been filled in Him". That’s right. That’s a main verbal idea. Another very important one is "the fullness of deity dwells bodily in Him". Now those are really the main verbal ideas in this passage that we’ve identified.
What about the conjunctions and what do the conjunctions tell us? Let me ask you specifically. Now this is not a major conjunction in terms of tying big clauses together, but the “and not” at the end of verse 8, why is that there? “According to them that are spirits of the world and not according to Christ.” What kind of relationship does that show? Contrast. Yes, it’s contrasting those two ideas that he’s saying. See to it that no one takes you captive by these philosophies according to human tradition, according to elementary spirits of the world, and he’s setting that over against us being taken captive by Christ and the proper teaching. So that conjunction shows contrast.
What about “for” at the beginning of verse 9? What relationship is that showing that verse 9 and 10 have with verse 8? There’s a logic relationship here. It's giving the reason why we should not be taken captive. He has an exhortation here in verse 8 that we are not to be taken captive through empty deception but rather to be taken captive in Christ. And then he says here’s why - “because all the fullness dwells in Christ and you have been filled in Him.” So you have a logic relationship that’s pointed out by “for.” An exhortation and then the basis or the reason why he’s exhorting us to do that. So you have that, and then the “and” at the beginning of verse 10 simply ties together the two ideas of all the fullness dwelling in Christ and then the fact that we have been filled in Him.
So we’ve identified the main verbal ideas. Really you have verse 8, the exhortation not to be taken captive. Verses 9 and 10 are the reason why we shouldn’t be, and there are two parts of that because the fullness in Christ and the fact that we have been filled in Him. So as we look at these different elements, as we move to outline the passage for ourselves, we would do it according to those main movements of the passage. Stand strong against false teaching, and then the basis for this exhortation, “Christ has all the fullness of deity in him and you have been filled in Him.” So it says that if you and I are going to stand against false teaching then there are two things we’re going to have to hang onto: the centrality of Christ Himself and also the fact that our experience of relationship with God is found completely in Christ. That we have been filled, we have an experience in him that gives us stability against false teachings that come along. And we would have to study that a little bit more to discern what’s he talking about there with “you have been filled in Him.” But at this point in our study, we want to say, well, this is important, so I’m going to want to dig a little bit more on that to find out what’s going on there.
D. Do word study
Next we would want to identify and dig into those words a little bit more that we’ve talked about earlier. Let’s talk about two of them - “take captive” and “elementary principles” - and see if we can look at those a little bit more closely.
You can get definitions of words from an exhaustive concordance or a Bible study software program. In your Bible study programs, a lot of times you can just click on the word and it will open a window and give you the Strong’s definition. But if you have an exhaustive concordance, remember there’s a dictionary in the back and the words in your concordance have a number next to them and you can go to the back and look in that dictionary and it will give you a definition just like this.
So the term that we have here for “take captive” is from a base and it gives you some other numbers to look at and also the cross-references, but it tells you the AV translates this as “spoil” one time. Spoils means to carry off booty. If you’re in a war, and you defeat the enemy and you plunder their camp, you could use this term - you carry off the spoils from the people who had been defeated. To carry one off as a captive and a slave is another way it would be used in the ancient world. So already we’re seeing the imagery that Paul is using here. This language for the people of the ancient world would bring up the idea of an enemy coming in and sacking your city and carrying you off as a slave to take you somewhere else. And what Paul’s saying here is when you and I give in to false teachings, we will be taken to somewhere we don’t want to be. Or be led away from the truth and subjected to one’s sway. So used in a figurative sense, this came to mean to persuade someone to believe something that was wrong, which is exactly how Paul is using it here. Doesn’t the imagery of being taken off as a slave somewhere help us to tune in to the strength and power of his language here?
And then we look at the elementary principles which are interesting but difficult to understand and interpret. It tells us tells us that this word is translated as element four times, rudiment twice, and principle once. This word had a variety of meanings in the ancient world. Any first thing from which the others belong to some series or composite whole, take their rise (?) and element, a first principle. The letters of the alphabet as the elements of speech could be referred to with this terminology. Not, however, the written characters but the spoken sounds. The elements from which all things have come. The material causes of the universe. The heavenly bodies either as parts of the heaven or, as others think, because in them the elements of man, life and destiny were supposed to reside. The elements, rudiments, primary and fundamental principles of any art, science or discipline. Mathematics or Euclid’s geometry. Isn’t it interesting that the term spoke of the basic stuff of which something was made up?
Now the question is: What is Paul talking about here when he refers to the elementary principles of the world? Is he talking about the world’s basic concepts of how life is what it is? Or is he talking about something else? Is he talking about spirits? Because this term could also be used of spirit beings of the universe. I don’t know about you, but I would want to do a little bit more reading because it seems to be a complex idea.
So one thing I might do is look at Craig Keener’s one volume IVP Background Commentary. And this is what he says about the elementary principle idea: It translates a term that can refer to the personified forces of nature, spirit beings or spirits as in Galatians 4:9, but here it may refer as usually to elementary principles. If this is the case, Paul affirms that the simple message of Christ is much more profound than the greatest secular wisdom could be.
So what Keener does is he goes in the direction of saying that this is not necessarily talking about being captive by the evil spirits of the world. He suggests that it’s more talking about the elementary fundamental principles or teachings of the world that are contrary to the teachings about Christ.
Now for the sake of processing conversation, we’re going to go with that direction. Now it may be that it’s a word that was intended to draw in these various ideas. Satan is the father of lies. So it may be there are spirit beings behind this false teaching. That’s a possibility. But I think at least what is going on here is that you have basic ways of thinking about truth according to principles that the world holds in its teaching, and those are set over against Christ. And from a broader context what Paul is concerned about is that these people are buying into wrong thinking and false teaching, and that’s really getting them off track.
E. Write the general principles
We have looked at the basic structure of the passage and we’ve learned something about the terminology. What would you say is a main principle or two that we would want to extract from this passage. And remember, the principle needs to be universal. It’s something that would apply to them and to us and we want to draw it from the passage itself. What would you say would be a basic principle of this part of the passage that we would want to identify as we begin to think about moving toward application for ourselves?
Some principles are: God’s ways are higher than the world’s ways. Guard against deception. There is such a thing as wrong thinking, and wrong thinking has very serious implications. Sound interpretation is important. Right, all these hit right at the heart of it.
F. Apply to similar situations in our context
As we move on and talk about application, remember we had several steps that we looked at. First of all, consider the original situation. And remember I said that with certain passages the original situation is not going to be that far removed from our situation. How would you state the original situation Paul is addressing here? People in the congregation at Colossae were being confronted with false teaching. That’s a very simple way of saying it. How did the principle apply in that situation? Well, Paul confronts them by reminding them that you’ve got to have right thinking about Christ to combat this false teaching.
What are the similarities and differences with our situations? What is different about their situation and our situation today? It may be the specifics of that false teaching were different. It may be that we’re not being confronted, for instance, with Sabbath observance or different kinds of legalism if you take in the broader context as Paul goes on and describes the types of legalism. We may not have exactly the same struggles of application of the false teaching that they did.
What are some differences between our situation and theirs? The degree to which the church was established. This was first century, middle of the first century. And we have the whole New Testament at our disposal, which they would not have. They had an apostle which is big. We don’t have an apostle in our church or even writing to our church today, but think of the phenomenal advantage that we have because we have the bigger pictures of the whole New Testament and the writings that we can go back and look at and study. By the way, I think that’s why a book like Colossians immediately started being copied and is preserved for us. Practical authoritative word from an apostle.
What about the similarities? What do we share with them, with the Colossians? What are the parallels between their situation and ours? Yes, false teachings always around, and we struggle with false teachings. They lived in a very pluralistic and syncretistic society. The word “syncretism” means what? It means the blending of religions and ideas to where you can’t tell the distinction of one or the other. They’ve become a blended kind of thing. Well, we live in a culture that’s pluralistic. You’ve got lots of different worldviews, lots of different ways of thinking and ideas, and it’s also very syncretistic. I’ve met people who have a mixture of Christianity, eastern religion, secularism, all different kinds of stuff blended in there. And I think that’s part of what Paul was battling here, that he lived in a society where there was real rich kind of broader discussion about religious ideas, and that wasn’t always a positive thing if it starts molding and shaping Christianity to be something other than what it is.
So what would you say in terms of what are specific ways we could apply the principle here to us? How can we bring this down to something that is very practical, concrete, something that we can grab hold of, think about this week, maybe even put into practice in some way? What would be some real practical things that we could do in terms of application? If we just landed on this principle while we were doing our study and this is what we were going to focus on for the week, what would be some practical things that we could do?
Be careful about watching Oprah? Well, there’s a real element of truth in that. Coming out of a Judeo-Christian background, a lot of people know the lingo and the language, and you can wind up with a lot of stuff that sounds kind of quasi-Christian out there. So when we watch something like Oprah, we want to be discerning. So a practical application might be this week I’m going to monitor what I take in through the media and evaluate where those philosophies and teachings are coming from, because we can pick up a lot of stuff on the fly and it starts working its way into our patterns of thinking.
If 90 percent of what I’m taking in is from the world’s sound waves and the world’s instruction to me, and I’m taking in very little of Scripture whether through reading or hearing or teaching or whatever, I might want to monitor that and see how much I am being exposed to the teachings of the world and how much to teachings of the Word. Where’s my meditation right now? That’s a practical application I’m going to meditate on and pray about this week.
What would be another practical application of something real practical? Well, you may say to yourself: This week I’m going to do a study and I’m going to put some of the main ways of thinking in the world’s patterns down the left side and I’m going to say how does this compare with Christ and Christ’s teachings. Now there may be some values of the world that actually have some correspondence to the teachings of Christ – concern for the poor, for example. But what we want to do is to evaluate those things in light of biblical truth and teaching and see if they line up at all.
For those of you who are younger and making big transitions in your life, you have to be strong and firm on what is your source of authority and what tells you how you should live your life. You have to process through those things and work on those. It's a good idea to lay out and think through the different types of teachings and maybe even do a study and look at how those line up with the teachings of Christ.
As you broaden the circles, you might say I want to think through my own family traditions and see how well they line up with Jesus. What about within the church? We might want to think about our branch of Christianity, our slice of Christianity, are there some things that are emphasized more than others, and some other things be emphasized more to more truly line up with Jesus. I think we’ve got to always ask that question and be evaluating in light of Scripture. And incidentally, that is why it’s so important to do exactly what this whole seminar has been about, and that is to be people who are in the Word who are reading and studying the Word on a consistent basis because then we bring all of life through that grid of looking at the Word and that becomes a pattern of life that’s important for keeping our own lives on track and our communities of faith as helping each other stay on track.
III. Concluding remarks
Let's flip back to the translations. Well, let me just say that all translations are going to have to choose probably one or the other, unless it's the Amplified which chooses all of the options. And frankly, I didn't want to prejudice it by pushing it one way or the other, but for the sake of conversation today, we had to choose to go in a direction, and I think that even if you're talking about according to the evil powers, still it's in the context of the false principles of teaching in the world. So it's safe to go in that direction, but it makes a difference. Now this is why it's important to compare translations and not just use one focus translation all the time. And it's also important to be able to have the basic skills of Bible study so you can go look for yourself, because every translation involves interpretation. Because language is complex. To bring that language over into English, you've got to make choices about those words. So I hope what this exercise does impart is point out to us that we've got to be aware that at times there are options out there in terms of the interpretation.
I think it's fun that this is what we get to do in the church. We get to grapple with this stuff and struggle with it, and I think that's part of the wonder of the process. It could have been that the spirit of God had decided that the way we would receive the word of God is just by direct beaming, like my Palm Pilot, right into our brains. But that's not the way God decided to do it. God decided to do it through human process, through human experience, through human language. And I think that's awesome because what it does is it keeps us struggling to understand the truth. It keeps us reaching towards God to understand what he is saying to us and how we should apply it.
All right. Thank you so much for being in this class. You guys have been great and faithful. Maybe what we can do sometime is have a step 2, where we talk about advanced Bible study and Bible reading, where we can go into more depth on aspects of the process here that we haven't had a chance to go into.