NextSunday Worship

July 28, 2013

“A Baptized Imagination”

Dr. Paul A. Baxley Colossians 2:6-19 Year C – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost - (Proper 12)

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” With these words Paul offers a clear warning to the church at Colossae, and his warning raises a basic question not only for the Colossians but also for us. 

But before we can even approach the basic question that is in play, we must admit that we are caught off guard by the unusual language Paul uses in Colossians: The elemental spirits of the universe? What in the world does that mean? 

Nijay Gupta, in his recently released commentary on Colossians sums up the situation well, as he acknowledges that this phrase “has caused much confusion.” Gupta then joins another commentator, Murray Harris, is acknowledging basically three possible meanings for this unusual phrase. 

Either Paul is speaking of 1) the basic building blocks of the world (earth, water, wind, etc.); or 2) the elementary teachings of the world; or 3) the elemental spirits of the world. (Nijay K. Gupta, Colossians: Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2013. p. 91-92). While scholars can be found who prefer all three of the options, a consensus seems to believe that Paul is speaking of rulers and spiritual authorities that are rivals to Christ. As Andrew Lincoln suggests in his commentary: 

In all probability, in the philosophy against which the letter is directed these elemental spirits were classed with angels and were seen as controlling the heavenly realm and as posing a threat both to human well-being and access to the divine presence. (Andrew T. Lincoln, Colossians: The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume XI. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000. p. 565.) 

Paul seems to be suggesting that there are “elemental spirits” in the world which influence the way people think, feel and act, and Paul’s clear assumption is that these elemental spirits work in ways contrary to the ministry and will of Jesus. The language in Colossians is clear that a person can’t simultaneously follow the direction set by these elemental spirits and also be faithful to Christ. Instead, Paul’s conviction is that these elemental spirits, left unchallenged, will control the imaginations and actions of human beings, and do so in ways that are contrary to Christian faith and practice. 

I suppose that many of us find ourselves deeply suspicious of all this talk of elemental spirits; that it sounds like a foreign language to us, like an invasion from a vastly different culture. If so, N. T. Wright offers a most helpful reality check. In his book, Following Jesus, Wright offers this insight: 

Who runs our world? The politicians? Forget it. They profess themselves helpless; they are victims of forces beyond their control. They try to take credit when things go well, but when things go badly the truth comes out. It’s all a matter of economic forces. Forces? I see no forces. But they must be pretty powerful….That’s the language we use. We can’t touch and see these forces…. Force, power, climate, and entities bigger than the sum total of the human beings involved….The only significant difference between us and our pagan ancestors appears to be that they recognized the situation and gave the forces vivid names, while we hide behind the grey obscurity of vague words. (as cited in Gupta, p. 110). 

Whether we like it or not, there are “forces” at work in the world which we cannot see, but which make a play for our imaginations. When I was pastor of First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina, I had the privilege of serving alongside B. J. Hutto, who was for several years our Associate Minister. Each year, he and I co-taught a Sunday School class for our graduating high school seniors which was designed to help prepare them for college and the transition to young adulthood.   

B. J. always taught the opening session, and the purpose of that session was to help the seniors name the cultural influences on the ways they thought and learned. He described the larger intellectual culture formed in the West since the Enlightenment as “the water in which we swim,” and he would often remark that it is as hard for us describe these cultural forces as it would be for fish to describe the water in which they swam. His point, which he put much better than I have here, is that there are, in fact, some hard-to-recognize forces at work in the world that shape the way we think. 

I think that’s what Paul means by elemental spirits of the universe. In every culture, there are forces at work that shape and form our ways of thinking, feeling and acting, even to fashion our imaginations. Some of those “elemental spirits” may be fairly harmless, but others certainly are profoundly toxic when it comes to growing as disciples of Jesus. 

Several years before B. J. and I started working together, I had the opportunity of attending a conference sponsored by Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis, Indiana. On a cold January day in 2003, I sat in a large auditorium and listened as Melissa Wiginton, then a Vice-President of the Fund for Theological Education, made a presentation. Her lecture was entitled: “Markers of Resistance.” Her words that winter morning have stayed with me ever since. She made a profound case that there were “invisible guiding principles” at work in our culture, forming the minds and habits of really talented young people. The problem, she said, was that these invisible principles were “toxic” to the Gospel and the ministry of the church.

So, when she sought ministers for the church, she sought young people whose lives showed evidence of “markers of resistance” to the toxicity at work in the dominant culture. So, while the dominant culture emphasizes hard work and frenetic activity all the time, Wiginton dreamed of seeking young people who had a capacity for quiet. She even suggested that a good starting place would be “to walk around campus and grabbing all the students who are alone and not talking on cell phones. Those would be the ones who might have the capacity to be quiet and still long enough to access their inner life.” (Melissa Wiginton, “Markers of Resistance” as presented at a conference sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education, January 8, 2003). 

When Wiginton speaks of “invisible guiding principles” she is not far from what my colleague several years later named “the water we swim in,” which is I think not far from what Paul means by “elemental spirits of the universe.” In first century Colossae and twenty-first century Athens, Georgia, there are invisible guiding forces, elemental spirits, at work seeking to form the imaginations and influence the actions of all of us. 

So recognizing the difficulty of describing “the water in which we swim,” can we name some of the elemental spirits at work in our culture now? Particularly some that might be contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What are those invisible guiding principles that are toxic to faith now? 

There seems to be, in our culture, a growing individualism. Perhaps the foundations for this were laid centuries ago, but increasingly psychiatrists and other specialists speak of an epidemic of self-absorption that is now known as “narcissism.” While the term is hard to define concisely, it generally refers to the extreme self-absorption and self-admiration that is prevalent in our culture. 

In a study published by a University of Georgia psychologist says: “other common names for narcissism include arrogance, conceit, vanity, grandiosity and self-centeredness. A narcissist is full of herself….loves the sound of his voice, or is a legend in her own mind…..A narcissist has an overinflated view of his own abilities…..Narcissists are not just confident, they’re overconfident. In short, narcissists admire themselves too much.” (Jean M. Twinge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Free Press, 2009. p.18-19) 

We see evidence of this culture of self-absorption in social media, we encounter it on t-shirts; we hear it in songs. That this way of self-understanding has reached “epidemic” levels is evidence that there must be “invisible guiding principles” or elemental spirits at work, guiding our culture to higher and higher levels of self-absorption. 

That this kind of self-absorbed imagination runs contrary to Christian faith couldn’t be any clearer. Jesus himself told his disciples: “If you want to be my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23).

I can still remember sitting in Church History class and hearing David Steinmetz tell us that the classic definition of sin is curvatus et en se, which in English means “the state of being curved in upon the self.” The elemental spirits of the world tell us that it is all about me, all about my desires being satisfied, all about me having what I want, all about me being special and more important than other people. But the Christian faith tells me that it is all about following Jesus, all about losing myself in the love of Christ and the mission of God. In this world, though, it is increasingly the case that left to the invisible guiding principles; we will all become highly self-absorbed. 

You can probably identify other elemental spirits at work in our world. Those that tell us that we should make us much money as we can because that is where security is found, or those that encourage us to believe that the only way to solve problems is through violence, or that we can cure what ails us through buying more stuff, or developing more addictions, and the list could surely go on and on. But there can be no denying that there are “forces” at work all around us that, left to their own devices will form our imaginations until we think, feel and act in ways that are not faithful to the Gospel or even healthy for us. 

So now we can hear Paul say: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” As Christians, what is our alternative to having our imaginations formed by the elemental spirits? 

Paul offers a clear alternative. “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught….For in him (Christ) the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”

What is Paul’s alternative to allowing the elemental spirits to control our imaginations? We are to live with baptized imaginations! Since we were buried with Christ in baptism and raised with Christ through faith in the power of God, we are able to live our lives in him. 

When we are baptized, our entire bodies are covered by the waters of baptism, and we are to continue to live all of our days carried by those waters, waters of grace, waters of service, waters of unconditional love, waters of compelling mission. 

When we are baptized into Christ, we die to a world governed by elemental spirits, and we rise to a life with Christ, where the all surpassing power of Christ holds sway and gains influence over all of our lives. In baptism, we are given new water in which to swim, and we gain access a power far greater than any elemental spirit or ambiguous force. 

As baptized believers in Jesus, we seek not only to act in ways that please Christ, but even to let Christ control our thinking and feeling; we give all of that over to his power so that, as Paul says in another place, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And as Paul writes the Colossians, it is in Christ that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are really held. (Colossians 2:3) 

I don’t know when it was for you, but for me it happened on another cold January day, this time in 1979. With what had to be one of the largest groups of candidates for baptism in the history of Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, I awaited the moment of my baptism. 

When my turn came, I walked into the waters of that baptismal pool, and my pastor, the late Warren Carr, spoke the words that I’m sure were spoken at your baptisms as well: “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ and upon you public profession of faith, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” And having said so, he immersed me in those waters. I came up out of the water, went to the dressing room, dried off and got dressed so I could return to the service. 

But what Paul tells me in Colossians is that the water into which I was plunged is still on me. Indeed, I am called to continue to live in that water, even to swim in it, to grow in faith, hope and love until even my imagination is baptized so that I may live life in that amazing current, in relationship with the Christ whose power shatters the invisible forces all around. 

If any minister anywhere has ever spoken those words over you before baptizing you, you have the same call. 

And if those words have never been spoken to you, the words of the Ethiopian to Philip can be our words to you: “See, here is water, what prevents you from being baptized?   Amen. 

About the writer: 

Dr. Paul A. Baxley has served as Senior Minister of First Baptist Church since June 2010. He is a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Previously, he served as Senior Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina (2004-2010), as Director of Congregational Relationships for Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (2002-2004), as Campus Minister at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina (1999-2002) and as Associate Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson (1992-1999). He holds degrees from Wake Forest University (B.A. Religion), Duke Divinity School (M.T.S.) and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (D. Min.) 

In recent years, Paul has also served on the Coordinating Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia, where he presently serves as Moderator-Elect. He has been chair of the Board of Directors for the Center for Congregational Health and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. He serves as a member of the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. While serving in Henderson, North Carolina, he was the chair of the local Ministers Community Partnership, which included area clergy from different denominational and racial backgrounds.  In 2012, Paul was one of the presenters at the annual Mercer Preaching Consultation and delivered the Lawrence Hoover Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. 

Paul is married to Jennifer Hoerning Baxley, a Physical Therapist who works for UHS-Pruitt in several local nursing facilities. They have four children (an 11 year old daughter Olivia, a 5 year old daughter Maria, and twin two and a half year-olds Matthew and Caroline). 

Scripture and Music 


Hosea 1:2-10

Psalm 85

Genesis 18:20-32

Psalm 138

Colossians 2:6-15-19

Luke 11:1-13   


Baptized in Water

The Church s One Foundation

O Master Let Me Walk with Thee

It Is Well with My Soul

The Strife is O er, the Battle Done 


I Want Jesus to Walk with Me (Moses Hogan or Jester Hairston)

The Lord s Prayer (Malotte)

Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation (Dale Wood)

In Thee Is Gladness (Kallman) 


The Lord s Prayer (Malotte)

I Want Jesus to Walk with Me

If My People (Jimmy Owens)

God and God Alone