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Friday, October 23, 2009

Plausible Arguments

"In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments." (Colossians 2:3-4)

WHO CAN YOU BELIEVE?

Politicians, preachers and peddlers are some of the most persuasive people we may meet. I can listen to an argument or sales pitch and be completely sold on it, and then listen to a different, contradictory presentation and be equally persuaded...who is right?

Competitive debate or rhetoric is based upon the art of persuasion, the forceful, charismatic use of words and appearance to move people towards action or emotion. Truth and objectivity are optional for a peddler (or politician, preacher or lawyer). Facts are tools that can be modified, exaggerated, obscured or concealed. The goal is to capture the affections, emotions and minds of the audience.

Have you ever met someone who consistently disagrees with you, always arguing against your opinions? That shows a heart more concerned with winning than with wisdom...a person intent upon appearing superior in every interaction.

Paul describes four harmful effects of plausible arguments, four different ways that the devil works in the world to weaken our faith and dishonor God:

  • Delusion (Colossians 2:4)
  • Captivity (Colossians 2:8)
  • Judgement (Colossians 2:16)
  • Disqualification (Colossians 2:18)

DELUDED BY PLAUSIBLE ARGUMENTS

"Plausible arguments" in the Greek means is pithanologia, meaning persuasive language. It comes from two words meaning to convince and to speak purposely. In English we use "pith", the soft interior of a bone or plant stem, to describe words that are essential and wise. We also use "logic" to refer to reasonable, careful expression of thoughts.

The definition does not imply anything specifically negative or false in the word for "plausible argument". It could refer to a completely true idea, one completely false or one with some truth and some deception. Paul used pithanologia only this one time...it appears nowhere else in the Bible. However, The "persuasive" part of the word, peitho, is used often, for good and bad, as is the "language" part, logos. Logos, or Word, is actually used as a name for Jesus.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)

A plausible argument can be competely true, but Paul describes the sinister side of skillful persuasion: deception.

The Greek word Paul used for delude means to misreckon. It is from two words meaning near and to take inventory. Literally, it means to miscount something near at hand or important.

Imagine a manager of a warehouse, responsible for controlling the inventory of all the owner's products. The manager is lazy, or ignorant, or more likely, criminal, and he miscounts the inventory. He skillfully persuades the owner that the inventory is complete. The manager deludes his boss through a plausible argument.

Imagine a religious leader, responsible for teaching and warning his church in their relationship with God and others. He is lazy, or ignorant, or more likely, greedy for power, and he misrepresents the truth. The religious leader deludes the people through a plausible argument.

Only one other instance of the word Greek word for delude occurs in the Bible:

"Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." (James 1:21-22)

The word translated here as "deceiving" is the same Greek word that Paul used, translated as delude.

Just hearing the word of God, without acting upon it, without taking it in and truly receiving and accepting it as essential, will cause you to miscount truth, making you a deluder of yourself.

TAKEN CAPTIVE BY HUMAN PHILOSOPHY

Paul warned believers to avoid being ensnared by plausible arguments of human philosophy and religion.

"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." (Colossians 2:8) "Takes captive" means to lead away as riches taken in war (booty, from French butin), from a word meaning to strip away or flay. "Elemental spirits" would be better translated as "natural order", referring to purely physical life here on earth. Plausible arguments of philosophy, tradition, humanist hedonism and survivalism strip away mankind's true riches, the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden in Christ. They deny the need to accept Jesus as Christ and Lord. They deny that He is completely God, Ruler of all things, victorious over Death, Redeemer of those dead in sin. (Colossians 2:9-15)

JUDGED ACCORDING TO DIET AND HOLIDAYS

The Colossian church had been put into turmoil by questions of food, drink, and holy days. "Let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ." (Colossians 2:16-17) "Pass judgement" means to distinguish or decide. Paul warns the Colossian believers to avoid people who decide your worth or direct your life by condemning what you eat or drink, or what holy days you celebrate. He calls such concerns just shadows, just a faint representation of the real. Since Jesus is really alive and his Spirit really dwells within us, what we eat or drink or celebrate on earth has little effect upon our relationship with him. Plausible arguments try to influence outward appearances. They take things that are good, and elevate them to an importance that is beyond truth. We all eat and drink...we all celebrate special days, but they are just a shadow of what is truly important. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not depend upon what we eat or drink or what special days we celebrate.

DISQUALIFIED BY SPIRITUALISM

"Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind." (Colossians 2:18)

"Disqualify" means to defraud, to deceitfully deprive someone of something of value (a right, an interest, or property). The Greek word means literally to "award the price against". It comes from a word for an umpire or judge at athletic contests who awards the prize. Imagine olympic athletes competing in a race. The judge disqualifies the winner, awarding the prize to a slower runner who seemed to "suffer" more and he claimed to have divine visions, making his efforts more noble than the faster runner. The disqualified winner has been defrauded of his prize.

"Asceticism" means false humility. Paul used two words that we've translated as "asceticism": separarately they mean “to determine” and “humility". The word meaning humility is commonly used in the New Testament, almost always for good. Peter used the same word to encourage believers to demonstrate humility:

"Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." (1 Peter 5:5-6)

Humility is a good thing...until it becomes motivated by pride. Paul is discerning the sin of pride, expressed through outwardly religious and spiritual demonstrations of humility. Humility is wicked when it puffs me up or encourages sensuality. Humility is perverted when it ignores the Lordship of Christ. Asceticism is a plausible argument that elevates my own personal strength and determination. Seeking visions unknown by others, adoring beings that are imaginary, devilish, or even spiritual servants of God, are the results of a sensuous mind, a mind set on gaining superiority and power...a mind taken captive by a plausible argument.

Paul describes some examples of false humility, religious asceticism:

"...you submit to regulations---'Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch' (referring to things that all perish as they are use)---according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stoppping the indulgence of the flesh." (Colossians 2:20-23)

Plausible arguments that persuade me to practice a religion based upon man-made rules or worship of anything less than Christ will cheat me of my true treasure:

"When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." (Colossians 3:4)

DEVILISH DECEPTION

What plausible arguments concerned Paul? How was the gospel being twisted or diluted, becoming deceptive? Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that he was afraid they would be led astray by the devil's cunning:

"But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough." (2 Corinthians 11:3-4)

Deceptive, plausible arguments are inspired by the devil, leading preachers to distort, conceal, or add to the truth of Jesus. The devil can inspire people with a false spirit, encouraging them to accept a plausible argument that contradicts or conceals the truth of Jesus.

"But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:6-7)

Paul warns that the gospel does not change...it remains the same from the time that Jesus began to preach it, through the times the Apostles taught it, and it continues the same for us now. Paul's clearest presentation of the gospel may be found in his first letter to the Corinthian church:

"Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures...he was buried...and he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

AVOIDING DECEPTION: SET YOUR MIND ON CHRIST

Paul reminds us that we are no longer alive in the world...our life is in Christ, Who is outside of this world.

"If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3:1-3)

Our goals, our desires, our minds should look beyond plausible argument, beyond half-truths and natural, physical desires. Our faith is in Christ alone, our Hope of Glory. What did Paul do to help his listeners validate his arguments for God? Immediately before warning his flock about deceptive arguments, Paul shares with them his prayer that God would encourage and unify them in Christ. Paul bases his arguments for God upon the wisdom and knowledge hidden in Christ.

"For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 2:1-4)

Paul did not glorify himself. He did not establish himself as the "expert", nor did he try to prove his argument by material evidence, nor through vague spiritualism. Paul simply pointed to Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and knowledge.

ACTING THE EXPERT

There is one instance in which Paul acts the expert, claiming authority by citing his education and experience:

Born a Hebrew, raised an Israelite, descended from Abraham, far greater labors and hardships than any other religious leader, visions and revelations, more than a "super-apostle", performing signs and wonders and mighty works...Paul boasted of his superiority over others. (2 Corinthians 11:22-12:12)

But his demonstration of superiority was a sham, a joke, a parody of how deceptive religious leaders were representing themselves to the people. Paul called his outburst of boasting foolish...he calls himself a madman for boasting of his human authority and knowledge. He said there is nothing to be gained by such boasting. The world relies upon plausible arguments and grand self-confidence to win friends and influence enemies, and Paul calls it foolish and mad. What did Paul rely upon to persuade people to love God? The gospel, prayer, and the Person called Jesus Christ.

"Of this (hope) you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing---as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth..." (Colossians 1:5-6)
"And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding..." (Colossians 1:9)
"He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation." (Colossians 1:15) Paul's argument was the gospel, preached with prayer, based upon the Person of Jesus Christ.

A SOLID LIFE IN CHRIST

The surest defense against falling for deceptive, skillful persuasion is a solid life in Christ. Paul was unable to be with the Colossians, but Epaphras had given him a good report, allowing Paul to know clearly how they were doing. He rejoiced in their "good order" and firmness of faith.

"For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ." (Colossians 2:5)

"Good order" in the Greek means a regular arrangement. Luke used this word to describe the scheduled service of Zechariah the priest:

"Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the presthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense." (Luke 1:8-9)

"On duty" is the same word that is also translated as "good order". "Firmness" means something established, from a Greek word pronounced ster-eh-os, meaning stiff, solid or stable. From this we get our word "stereo", short for "stereophonic", meaning recordings that sound life-like, full...solid. From the good report from Epaphras, Paul understood that the Colossian believers were solid in Christ. As a group they were committed to establishing personal habits that emphasized regular worship, prayer, teaching and fellowship. To describe a solid life in Christ, Paul imagined a person walking:

"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." (Colossians 2:6-7)

The act of walking is a good illustration of good order and firm faith.

  • moving, yet stable
  • best action for long journey
  • requires good balance
  • best for difficult terrain
  • best form of regular exercise

Spiritual walking emphasizes a life completely dependent in Christ. Paul identified four conditions that guarantee a person's walk with Christ is in good order and firm:

  • Rooted
  • Built up
  • Established
  • Thankful

A root is the unseen part of a plant that absorbs and stores nutrients and supports the upper structure of the plant. "Built up" refers to a house, designed and constructed from the ground upward. To be established means to be stable, especially when standing or walking. Thankfulness refers to prayerful expression of gratitude to God for things He's given that are good, undeserved, and happy. A plant can trace every part of its life back to its root: its stem breaks through the soil, allowing leaves to capture the sun's energy, sending strength to its flowers, giving birth to fruit that contains seeds for next year's plant.

The Spirit of Jesus is hidden in the unseen depths of the Christian's heart, directing his outward actions, moving him to express spiritual fruit: words and attitudes that honor God, drawing others toward reconciliation with their Creator. Without Jesus, no fruit, no life. A house begins with a foundation, solid ground that supports the weight of the structure, allowing the rooms to be safe, comfortable and beautiful. All the different compartments of a Christian's life: personal, family, work and community will be safe, comfortable and beautiful as long as they remain built upon the solid foundation of Christ. Without Jesus, nothing fits, walls crumble and life becomes precarious.

The opposite of stability and thankfulness would be turmoil and bitterness, a person lacking a close family or friends, lacking security or support. Without Jesus, life becomes a constant battle against trouble and disappointment, with no hope for happiness. James described one cause of instability as being filled with doubt:

"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways." (James 1:5-8)

The Greek word for "doubting" means to separate thoroughly or withdraw from. It comes from two words meaning through (as a channel of an act) and distinguish or decide. A good example of this word is seen in Peter's attitude toward three men who came to him. Peter had just experienced a vision of the Lord inviting him to eat food that was unclean, saying "What God has made clean, do not call common." The Spirit of God spoke to Peter:

"Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them." (Acts 10:20)

Immediately after the vision, three men knocked at his door, asking him to come with them. They were Gentiles, non-Jews, people shunned by all devout Jews. "Hesitation" is the same word used by James, translated as "doubting". For Peter, to doubt or hesitate would mean that he would be looking at the men and deciding that they were not acting through God...he would be "through-judging" them, failing to see that God was behind them.

James is warning of the same doubting attitude. One who prays with doubt is one who fails to see God at the other end of the prayer line. They ask for wisdom, but they doubt that God will give them anything wise. This sets them up for double-mindedness and instability. Faith applies directly to the ability to discern truth, or the lack of truth, in a persuasive argument. We need wisdom, but we need God to direct that wisdom, and we need to trust that God is able to give good wisdom. If we doubt God's word, or if we reserve the right to decide if God is true or not, we will become double-minded, unstable and unable to sort out the deception in plausible arguments.

Mark describes a man in the middle of belief and unbelief, trusting that Jesus was the source of Life and Power, yet at the same time aware of how much he did not believe. The man had brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus for healing, saying "If you can do anything, help us!" Jesus responds: "If you can! All things are possible for one who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)

Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the child. The word used here for "unbelief", is not the same as used for "doubting". Mark used a word that means lack of faith or not convinced, but it was not the kind of doubt that causes us to shrink away from Jesus. The was not looking through and deciding that Jesus was false, drawing back and hesitating. Rather, he was reaching towards Jesus, trusting that He was true, and that Jesus would do more that just heal his child...he was looking toward Jesus as the source of truth for all issues in life...every part of his unbelief would be changed to faith in Christ.

WHAT DO YOU THINK:

In your heart, quietly in prayer, reach out to Jesus and offer him your unbelief. What areas of your life can you identify as being influenced by "plausible arguments"? What things have you been trying to rationalize as being good, but are actually a mixture of truth and deception? In what circumstances do you need to have Jesus be you all in all?

SALTY SPEECH

Rather than relying upon plausible arguments, Paul encouraged believers to be "salty". Paul asked the Colossian church to pray for him, asking God to enable Paul to make the gospel clear.

"Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison--that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." (Colossians 4:3-6)

"Gracious" in the Greek is charis, meaning gratifying, from a word meaning cheerful or calmly happy. The gospel is called "good news" for a reason: it gratifies our soul...it brings happiness to the despairing and lost. Our words, especially to unbelievers should ultimately encourage them and lead to hope for happiness. It makes good, biblical sense to "sandwich" bad news between good news at the beginning and good news at the end.

"Seasoned" means prepared, as with spices, from a word meaning to lift or sail away. "Salt" figuratively means prudence or the exercise of reason. Jesus said that his disciples were the salt of the earth, but he warned of the consequences if they lost their "taste":

"You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?" (Matthew 5:13)

"Taste" is translated from the Greek word, moraino, meaning insipid or without taste. It comes from a word meaning dull or stupid (as if shut up), from a word meaning to shut the mouth. From this Greek word we get our English word, moron, a person unable to reason or respond intellectually. Along with encouraging, good news, our arguments must be based upon reason and intellect. Ideas without foundation are empty. Repeating unsubstantiated legends is not better than a mouth shut tight. In our desire to speak of happiness and encouragement, we dare not simply say things that are pleasing, regardless of their truth.

Jesus spoke of saltiness in the context of prophets being persecuted. Why would speakers of encouragement be persecuted by the world? If the words reminded people of their sin and their guilt before God, and God's rightful doom of wrath, the world will respond with anger and rebellion. Salt adds flavor to food, highlighting subtle flavors not otherwise noticed. In a sense, adding salt to food introduces a tension: too much salt causes burning and retching...too little and the food is bland, not worth eating.

In the same way, "salty" words bring tension to the listener, joining good news with warning of danger, encouragement linked with reproach. Plausible arguments based upon deception will "sugar coat" their words, hoping to distract their listener from looking closely at facts and consequences. Speaking to others of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit brings forth words of encouragement and directness, honesty and reason...."seasoned with salt."

Plausible arguments are skillfully presented to persuade and influence others. Truthfulness is often set aside in favor of impact, popularity and logic. Facts are blurred, distorted or concealed. Salty speech does not mean to talk coarsely or to use blasphemy...it means using words and methods that are appropriate for each individual person. No single method or style of presentation works for every person...we all have unique experiences, preferences, education and cultures. Some people respond well to direct, tough "spicy" talk. Others listen closely if the message is smooth, gentle and compassionate. This "recipe" for encouragement requires the influence of God's Holy Spirit...it is beyond natural human ability to figure out what is required for each situation.

ARGUMENTS OF JESUS

To argue has a negative connotation, implying rebellion and a contrary attitude. Too often our arguments are emotional, biased and malicious. But the simple act of arguing is actually completely good and reasonable. "Argue" means to offer reasons for or against something, from Latin argutare, to make clear. Jesus argued in this way when the devil attempted to persuade him to dishonor God:

"Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God...You shall not put the Lord your God to the test...You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve." (Matthew 5:7)

The "salt" required for this argument with the devil was specific and direct application of God's commandments. Jesus did not "converse" with the devil...he did not ask probing questions to help the devil understand the issue...rather, Jesus used God's words as a sword, parrying and attacking the weak areas of the devil's "plausible argument".

Another argument is seen between Jesus and the Pharisees who attributed the healing power of Jesus to Beelzebul, the prince of demons:

"Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, 'Every kingdom of house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirt of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Matthew 12:25-28)

In this instance, Jesus salts his argument with more detail and explanation than he did with the devil. He continues the argument with an imaginative illustration to make his argument clear and memorable. The "flavor" of this argument is tailored to fit the mindset of his audience. An interesting "non-argument" is seen in the response of Jesus to his hometown crowd, friends and acquaintances he knew growing up in Nazareth:

"A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household." (Matthew 13:57)

Why didn't Jesus take advantage of the people's astonishment at his teaching? They had listened to his teaching and asked what seems to be a good question:

"Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?

But Jesus dismisses them, almost scornfully. In this instance, Jesus withheld any "salt" to his words...he even took his message off the table! The unbelief and willful ignorance of the people made any further attempt to argue useless. Sometimes, walking away is the best argument. There are many, many instances of Jesus arguing, and each episode is slightly different in tone, depending upon the "salt" required for each audience. At their last meal together, Jesus gave his disciples a warning to expect tremendous turmoil, even to the extent of abandoning the faith, when he is killed later that night. Peter protests, arguing that he's mistaken...he would never deny Jesus, even if it meant his death. How does Jesus respond?

"Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times." (Matthew 26:34)

This is all that Jesus says to Peter. He doesn't reprimand him for contradicting him...he doesn't try to make him change his mind. He is honest and direct, saying it just one time and then letting it drop. Later, Jesus takes Peter and two others with him for prayer, a heartrendingly honest time with God. The argument between Jesus and Peter was tenderly and carefully salted, just for Peter. It was crystal clear and completely honest...it was just was Peter needed. So, how can we learn to "salt" our arguments to fit each different situation? We can't...we can only rely upon God's Spirit to direct us in every circumstance. Salt is absolutely essential to our words, but only the Salt of God will do.

CONCLUSION

"In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments." (Colossians 2:3-4)

Paul warned that Christians can be deluded by skillful persuasion, and this implies that we in turn could deceive others in the same way, perhaps even unknowingly. The only way to guard against the deception and maintain clear, honest and worthwhile communication with others is to walk with Christ, the only completely true and wholesome Communicator.

REVIEW

  • Four harmful effects of plausible arguments: delusion, captivity, judgement and disqualification
  • "Plausible arguments": persuasive language
  • "Delude": misreckon or miscount
  • "Takes captive": strips away valuable belongings
  • "Disqualified": defrauded of something valuable
  • The Gospel: Christ died for our sins, he was buried and three days later he rose from the dead.
  • The key to avoiding deception: set your mind on Christ.
  • A solid life in Christ: walking, rooted, built up, established and thankful
  • "Salty" speech: words that fit the situation, based upon reason and honesty