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Beware of Sharks!

May 11, 2012 Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Scripture: Colossians 2:6–2:23

This message began by acknowledging and praying for the people who will be leaving Abu Dhabi during the summer and do not plan to return.

I was in the water with my goggles on when I heard the call: “Divers down! Divers down!” I put my head down into the water, and there emerged out of the murky distance the sinister shape. It was a shark! Every swimmer’s nightmare was swimming straight toward me. Not just any shark, but a great white shark. And not a small one; this one probably measured about two and a half meters in length. I watched with a mixed feeling of fascination and fear as it swam closer and closer and then turned away at the last minute. As it did, I could see his large, unblinking eye staring at me.

Last summer while we were on holiday in South Africa, I participated in a shark dive. There were 8 of us, suspended in a cage off the side of a boat, as the shark swam close to investigate us. I could feel the adrenaline racing as the shark came back for another look. This time he actually bumped his nose into the steel bars that surrounded the cage. For twenty minutes (or as long as we could stand the 10 degree water even in heavy wetsuits) we watched as shark after shark came by to check us out. It was hard to tell whether we were watching them, or they were watching us.

I want to offer that metaphor or word picture to those of you who will be leaving ECC over the next few months. In this metaphor, who are the sharks? The sharks are false teachers. And my message to you is clear and simple: beware of sharks! Sharks are not your friends. Sharks are dangerous. Beware of false teachers and false teaching. They are not your friends. They are dangerous.

We read the Scripture (Colossians 2:6-23) a few minutes ago. There are three clear warnings, each time presented in the form of an imperative or command. The first one is found in verse 8: See to it that no one takes you captive… There is a risk that we might be enslaved, placed into bondage by false teachers and false teaching.

The next warning is in verse 16: Do not let anyone judge you… And again in verse 18: Do not let anyone disqualify you for the prize… Although worded differently, I believe these two commands express the identical warning. It is the idea of someone intimidating us by passing judgment against us and our Christian faith and practice. The word that is translated “disqualify you for the prize” literally means to serve as a referee in judging you as disqualified. The Colossians had come to faith in Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Now false teachers were coming in. They were seeking to place the Colossian believers in bondage, and to judge their faith and their conduct as Christians as inadequate and unworthy of “real Christians.”

You are soon leaving ECC. Maybe you have come to faith in Christ here. Maybe you have grown in your knowledge of God’s truth and in faith and obedience to God’s Spirit within you. ECC has become a spiritual home for you. But now you are leaving. What will you find out there? One thing I can assure you, based on Scripture itself. False teachers abound. And false teachers are dangerous. Beware of false teachers and false teaching. Beware of sharks!

The particular system of false teaching that was threatening the Colossian church was a form of early Gnosticism. It was a rather elaborate system of thought and practice. Since we are not facing that particular system today in its entirety, I am not going to go into great deal detail to describe it or recreate it. What we do find, though, is that Gnosticism included some basic errors which are common to many heresies and false doctrines. We do encounter many of these errors and false doctrines today. I want to point out and thereby warn you against three of these basic errors.

A. Beware of teaching based on human sources.

In verse 8, we read: 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.

Verse 22 makes the same point: These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings.

We need to consistently ask ourselves a basic question: Where does this teaching come from? What is its source? Teaching based on human sources can take different forms. It may be accepted human wisdom in general. “Everyone knows that…” Common proverbs can sometimes lead us astray: “The end justifies the means.” “How can it be wrong when it feels so right?” Or it may take the form of tradition, handed down over many generations. Or it may be the teaching of a powerful, magnetic personality. Whatever the case, if its origin is human or worldly, BEWARE! Be very, very careful.

I remember many years ago sitting in a conference for pastors in the U.S. A popular Christian teacher of the time was waxing eloquent on the platform. From my point of view, he was on rather shaky ground in some of what he was teaching. At one point he paused and then told us: “If you speak with confidence, people will believe you and follow you.” I looked around the room and watched all these pastors with their heads down, writing furiously in their notebooks. I thought to myself: “Am I the only one in this room that thinks that’s scary?” Just because you hear something in a church, doesn’t make it true! Check the source. Always check the source! Will you please do me a favor? Don’t ever believe something I say just because I said it! Go back to the source; the Gospel message, the Scripture, the Word of God. If what I say or any other preacher says does not match what you find in the Bible, then believe the Bible, not me.

B. Beware of teaching that bases salvation or spiritual merit on human effort or performance.

Look at verse 11: In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ. If we read between the lines here, we can surmise that the Judaizers had reached Colosse. They were teaching that physical circumcision was necessary for salvation – or if not for salvation, at least for full attainment of acceptance in God’s sight.

Verse 16 gives us more in the same vein: 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. I am not sure if this refers to Old Testament laws being applied, or pagan practices being adopted or both. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. The false teachers were teaching that observing certain religious festivals or dietary restrictions or special days of worship would somehow earn them spiritual merit in God’s sight; Salvation or spiritual attainment by religious observances.

Verse 20-23 goes into further detail:

20 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: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 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.

This passage adds personal self discipline and self-denial to religious observance. You might be saying: “But what’s wrong with that?” Well, for one thing, it doesn’t work as the end of verse 23 tells us. These regulations lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. For another thing, it takes the focus off Christ and his cross, and puts it on our own discipline our own works, our own religious acts. It becomes a salvation based on works. It leads ultimately to legalism and a life of spiritual bondage to a set of rules. Boot strap Christianity: pull yourself up by your own efforts.

C. Beware of teaching that is based primarily on mystical experiences.

This is the warning found in verse 18: 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.

Such people claim or maybe even have had some kind of mystical experience; some vision or angelic appearance or some other unexplainable event. And this becomes the basis for their authority and their teaching. “God said this to me through an angel or a vision. Therefore we must obey. We must follow. This is the word from the Lord.” How should we respond when someone says that to us? Be very, very careful. Do not base your doctrine or your practice on such claims. If you want a sobering study, look into the origins and history of the cults and false religions and see how many of them were founded and based on some kind of angelic appearance or vision or mystical experience on the part of the founder. Beware! Such people not only claim authority based on such mystical experiences. They also claim a higher level of spiritual attainment, and imply that others, who have not had such experiences, are inferior or have not arrived at the same level of spiritual maturity or closeness to God.

I think we can summarize all three warnings, by adding a fourth one:

D. Beware of any teaching that is not Christ-centered.

This is really the bottom line and is common to the other warnings. Beware of teaching that leaves out, adds to or minimizes the person or work of Christ. Notice the contrast at the end of verse 8: “rather than on Christ.” Measure all spiritual or religious teaching by this yardstick: what place is given to Christ? If he is left out, then run from that church and that teacher. If the teaching adds to the work of Christ (Christ plus) then run from that teaching. If it minimizes or in any way diminishes his person or his finished work, then move away. Beware of false teaching! Beware of sharks!

Now let me go back to my experience in South Africa. Before we went out on the boat, the crew gave us an extended briefing. It contained a lot of words, but really just two basic messages. First, sharks are dangerous. The second one was: The cage is strong. The cage is shark-proof. Stay inside the cage! Stay completely inside the cage! Don’t put your hand out, or your foot out, or even a finger out. Stay inside the cage!

So if the sharks are false teachers and the false teachers are dangerous, where is our safe place? How can we as Christians “stay in the cage” in a spiritual sense?

To answer that question, let’s look the opening verse of the paragraph in Colossians 2:6: So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him. We could more literally translate that: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, in him keep walking.”

Our safe place as Christians is Christ himself. Keep walking in Christ, just as you received him. Stay close to Christ. Put down deep roots into Christ. That’s what the next verse tells us: 7 rooted and built up in him… This is relational and experiential. “Abide in me,” was what Jesus told his followers. But it is also doctrinal and intellectually rigorous. Notice his next phrase: strengthened in the faith as you were taught… As we read that, we must keep something in mind. This is not faith in the sense of the act of believing. Whenever the New Testament uses the word “faith” with the definite article (“the”) and speaks of “the faith”, it is referring not to subjective faith, but to objective faith; the content of what is believed. “The faith” in this context means the Gospel, the fundamental truths about Christ and salvation. It is what we must believe in order to be saved. This is clear in this verse, because he qualifies it as being “strengthened in the faith as you were taught.” To avoid false teachers and to stay safe from their false doctrines, we must rigorously compare all teaching with “the faith we were taught” the fundamental truths of the Gospel we have been studying in Romans.

There is a marvelous summary of that Gospel here in verses 13-15:

13When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Isn’t that a great summary of the Gospel we’ve been studying in Romans? When false teachers come and try to add to the gospel and the work of Christ, come back to what you learned at the beginning. “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” Hold on to Christ, and his completeness and the sufficiency of his work on the cross. Hold on to the Gospel, “the faith” you were taught.

I trust that for those of you who are leaving, one of the first things you will look for is a church to fellowship with. I remember one young couple who came to Christ here at ECC. After about a year, the company relocated them to Paris. Before they even took the job, they wanted to find a church. Carolina did some research online. She arrived in Paris early on a Sunday morning. She had the address of a church. She took a taxi straight from the airport to the church so she could find out what it was like. The children of the church got quite a chuckle out of this woman who showed up at church carrying her suitcase! I hope finding a church is equally important to you.

But how will you choose the church you will fellowship with when you leave here? People use many different criteria for choosing a church. Some check out the children’s ministry or the youth program. Some choose a church based on whether they like the music. Some might choose a church for its architecture or choose it because it’s in the right neighborhood. Some base their choice primarily on whether or not they find the people to be friendly and welcoming. Sometimes people who are leaving come and ask me: “Where can I find a church like ECC where I’m going?” Well, I am sorry to say you may never find another church that’s quite like ECC. But here is what you must find; a church that faithfully proclaims “the faith,” the Gospel you have received and been taught. On this you cannot compromise. And if you can’t find one, then maybe God is calling you to find some other like minded believers and start one! But whatever you do, do not compromise on “the faith” which you have been taught.

And so it is time for me to say farewell to those of you who will depart over the summer – my prayers go with you. But I also urge you to take away this picture from the shark dive. The ocean can be a dangerous place – especially spiritually. Beware of sharks! Stay safe in the cage. Stay close to Christ and to the faith you have been taught. And stay close to others who share this same precious faith that has been “once for all delivered to the saints.”

Let me offer this prayer for you by turning this verse into a kind of benediction for all who will be leaving:

May the God of heaven grant that just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, you may continue to walk in him, that you may be rooted and built up in him, and that you may be strengthened in the faith as you were taught.


Share a highlight from your experience at ECC (even if you’re not leaving!)

When the time comes for you to leave Abu Dhabi and relocate (back home or somewhere else) what will you look for in a church? Do you think your answer has changed because of your experience at ECC?

In this message, Pastor Cam highlights four things to watch out for in order to avoid false teaching. Discuss each one: how common is this error? Can you give examples? What are the inherent risks in this error?Teaching based on human sourcesTeaching that bases salvation or spiritual merit on human effort or performanceTeaching that is based primarily on mystical experiencesTeaching that is not Christ-centered

What are some things we can do to “stay safe” from false teachers and false teaching? What are some practical things we can do to fulfill the commands in Colossians 2:6?