In our study in Colossians last week, we ended by considering the nature of God’s victory in Christ, especially the fact that Christ’s death on the cross has taken care of the two main things that plague us as human beings—our sinfulness and Satan’s attacks. Think about it.
If it weren’t for the Fall, we would never get sick;
If it weren’t for the Fall, we would never get depressed;
If it weren’t for the Fall, we would never die physically;
If it weren’t for the Fall, Satan wouldn’t be the ruler of this world;
If it weren’t for the Fall, there would be no evil;
If it weren’t for the Fall, there would be no injustice.
But, thankfully, the Fall isn’t the final word.
Our gracious and triune God knew that a portion of the angels he created would turn against him and so introduce evil into the world.
Our gracious and triune God knew that Adam & Eve, our first parents, would succumb to the wiles of the serpent in the Garden and so contaminate the perfect and good creation and image in which they were made.
Our gracious and triune God knew that He would take drastic measures to overcome the effects the Fall and its subsequent evil.
And so we see in Genesis that once Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent, they are judged by God but the serpent is cursed by him and we see in this curse the promise that thereon in there would be enmity—hostility, opposition—between his offspring and that of the woman. And we are presented in Genesis 3:15 with what theologians refer to as the protoevangelion—or the first presentation or instance of the Gospel message—as God tells the serpent of one whose heel he will crush but who ultimately will crush the serpent’s head—and that crushing comes to fruition with the coming of Christ. It’s interesting that in Romans 16:20 Paul alludes to this promise as he tells the church at Rome that “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” And as we saw last week, with Christ’s living and suffering and dying and rising, sin has been dealt with and Satan has indeed been crushed as he is paraded and made a spectacle as once-and- for-all defeated foe.
In this morning’s passage Paul continues to encouraged right doctrine while confronting wrong doctrine. Having told the Colossians how God in Christ has conquered the debt of our sin and made us alive with Christ and how God in Christ has defeated Satan and his foes once and for all, Paul now turns to some of the specifics of the false teaching that is luring them away from the faith they initially received. We now learn some of the details of the “fine-sounding arguments” and “deceptive philosophy” he has warned them against in verses 4 and 8 respectively.
Verses 16 provides us with the first instance of this wrong teaching. Paul begins by saying “Therefore”—in other words given what you have been taught about your victory in Christ’s victory—“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.” In all likelihood, the false practices in view at Colossae involve some kind of asceticism or abstaining from all forms of indulgence for religious reasons. And this isn’t the only time Paul has had to address such seemingly mundane matters. In the opening verses of Romans 14, he similarly states
1Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.
The list of things that are being addressed at Colossae are similarly examples of what are known as adiaphora, literally “matters of indifference.” By “indifference” is meant that these things are spiritually neutral or that morality neither mandates nor forbids them. What Christians eat or drink falls within this category so if some are tying a deeper spirituality with what the Colossians may or may not eat and drink, Paul is making it clear that this isn’t spirituality according to what Christ taught. In Christ there is freedom.
So, too, the Colossians aren’t to take their spiritual temperature by which religious festivals they do or don’t celebrate. Again, Paul also addressed this in Romans 14:5–6: “5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” Paul is similarly reminding the Colossians of the liberty—of the freedom—believers have in Christ. In areas that are morally neutral, the proper posture we’re to have is to do all that we do for Christ. F.F. Bruce is correct in observing “If a Christian wishes to restrict himself in matters of food and drink, or to set aside certain days for special observance or commemoration, good and well; these are questions to be settled between his conscience and God…. But to regard them as matters of religious obligation is a retrograde step for Christians to take.”
Paul reminds the Colossians in verse 17 how even some Old Testament practices and ceremonial laws were a “shadow of things that were to come.” These things pointed to a greater reality that were found and fulfilled in Christ. We’ve considered some of these before. The Old Testament animal sacrifices which had to be repeated continually to atone for sin were done away with when Christ, the Lamb of God, was sacrificed once and for all to cover all sin. In the Colossian church, Paul has already told them that what matters isn’t a literal circumcision of their flesh, but a circumcision of their hearts—a cutting away of old desires, a dying to their old selves that they might embrace the new creatures they are in Christ. Paul is contending—he is fighting—to keep the Colossians from confusing the means with the end. Christ is the goal, not food, drink, or religious festivals. In him there is freedom, not in an imposed list of do’s and don’ts.
Having addressed the false practices in verses 16 and 17, in verse 18 Paul is challenging the alleged authority of those who are teaching them. “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you.” The phrase “false humility” is an interesting one, isn’t it? By definition humility is “a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.” So to accuse someone of false humility is really another way of saying that they’re proud or that they have “an excessively high opinion of themselves or their own importance.” These false teachers are not only displaying false humility, they are delighting in it. And given what Paul has just said, the basis for their false humility probably has to do with ascetic practices—with the extreme self-discipline—of these false teachers. [Talk about Fundamentalist Background—Legalism adds to Scripture and creates a new scripture—no drinking; David’s dancing was really ‘jumping’ for joy]
Returning to our text, the false leaders’ false humility is further linked with the worship of angels. The false teachers are overly proud over a seemingly spiritual practice—namely, the worship of angels which probably includes invoking angels for help and possibly praying to them. But Scripture teaches that angels are God’s messengers who ever and always are ready to do his bidding and Scripture further teaches that to worship any part of God’s creation over the Creator is nothing less than idolatry, a practice always condemned in Scripture.
However, the false teachers at Colossae are going “into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind.” This “going into great detail” is a rare expression in the Greek but it denotes a higher stage of a mystery cult initiation that involves entering the innermost sanctuary of a pagan temple. So the false teacher here may be basing part of his teaching on spiritual experiences or visions seen in a pagan ritual initiation—and claiming that this is acceptable for Christians. Yet though these false teachers provide “great detail” about these visions they’ve presumably seen, Paul states that what they’re really excited about is nothing but “idle notions by their unspiritual mind.” In fact, verse 19, “They have 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.” Paul is teasing out here an implication he first introduced in 1:18 when, in speaking about the Son being God, he stated that “he is the head of the body, the church.” Our connection to Christ, our head, is to shape our doctrine and practice. If Christ is the church’s corporate head, then should individual members of that church claim to have had visions that go contrary to what Scripture teaches, the church is to recognize that by accepting an authority other than Scripture, those members have “lost connection with the head.” In other words, they are no longer following the way of Christ. A healthy church will look to God in Christ and the disclosure he has given us in his Word in order to grow “as God causes it to grow.” Without Christ as its head, its “ligaments and sinews” won’t be able to support and hold it together as God intended. It won’t be able to grow in its knowledge of Christ and its practice of his teachings.
[MS example. Healing by prayer more “spiritual” than injecting weekly for 6 years. Also false spirituality.]
In verses 20-21, it becomes clear that some of the false teaching has taken root so Paul is doing everything in his power to uproot it. Again, he is contending for the true Gospel. Paul asks these believers, “20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’?” Again, they’ve bought into the ascetic teaching that is basing its authority not on Christ’s teachings but on pagan visions and practices. They’ve come to accept that to abstain from certain practices is going to help make them more spiritual. Yet Paul is bringing these Colossians back to the teaching they received. As we saw last week, by their baptism they have identified with Christ’s death and resurrection. They have put to death the old man and his ways and risen as new creatures in Christ, following Christ, their head, and his ways. This former life to which they’ve died includes “the elemental spiritual forces of this world” and, if they’ve died to these, Paul wants to know, then why, oh why, are they living “as though [they] still belonged to the world,” as exemplified by their “submit[ting] to its rules”?
In Colossians Paul is combating an allegedly spiritual authority that is challenging the true teaching in Christ. He reminds them that 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? are nothing but human “22 rules…[that] are based on merely human commands and teachings”—no matter what those who are giving them say. These human rules “have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use”—in other words, they have to with things that won’t last.
In verse 23 Paul acknowledges that “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.” Restraining ourselves can be difficult, can’t it? Our passions are strong but our wills are weak. So what if someone told us of a guaranteed no-fail means of restraining our passions? What if we made it a hard-and-fast rule for ourselves, for instance, that every time we felt tempted, all we would need to do was to taser ourselves to overcome that temptation? Or, if tasering sounds too extreme, how about if we merely scratched ourselves or tapped our head against a wall, in order to cease being tempted? These “regulations” to use Paul’s language, might “have an appearance of wisdom” but they would “lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” The problem with practicing this kind of severity with our bodies is that it encourages confidence in ourselves rather than in Christ. A self-imposed worship is nothing other than a self-made religion. It’s following our own ideas of what will make us spiritual rather than following Christ.
I remember hearing an account of one of the early Church Fathers who, despite his position as bishop, felt himself terribly tempted by the local dancing girls—and I confess I’ve no idea what these dancing girls would have been like in the first few hundred years of the church’s existence! Regardless, he chose to isolate himself, far from town, and spend some time alone, in a cave. However, what we read in his journals from that time of extreme isolation, miles away from any dancing girls or any person, is this: “Dancing girls, dancing girls, dancing girls. Day and night, all I see in my mind are dancing girls.”
Isn’t freedom in Christ what we all long for? To be free from our sin so we can find our rest in him? Isn’t this why we are drawn to the so-called “sinners prayer” from the Gospel of Luke—God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Do you remember the parable it comes from? In Luke 18:10–14 Jesus gives an account of a Pharisee and a tax collector:
10 Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”14 I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Outwardly the Pharisee was doing everything right, wasn’t he? Negatively, he didn’t rob or commit other evil. He wasn’t an adulterer. He wasn’t a corrupt tax-collector. Positively, he fasted—not once, but twice a week. He tithed regularly. And the tricky thing is, that the actions he abstained from and performed are, in fact, behavior that Scripture asks us elsewhere to emulate. But the problem with the Pharisee is that rather than perform these actions out of gratitude to God, these actions made him feel justified in his own eyes. He thought he could keep the letter of the law, while disregarding the spirit of it. He didn’t really need God because, in his own eyes at least, he was already doing everything God required. But whereas the Pharisee didn’t see his need for God, the tax collector did. As Luke tells us elsewhere, only the sick know they have need of a Physician. And because of the power of sin, we all need Christ the Physician.
Self-imposed religion—self-imposed regulations—have an appearance of wisdom because their goal is a noble one—who wouldn’t want to implement a fool-proof, 100% guaranteed method of resisting temptation? But ultimately these regulations fail because they are a means of changing our exterior behavior rather than of changing our hearts. In order for our hearts to change—for our desires to change—we need nothing less than God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us to make our desires, thoughts, and actions holy; to make our desires, thoughts, and actions conform to God’s. We may be able to change our behavior or manage our sin for a time, but only God can permanently cleanse and so change our hearts.
As we turn to chapter 3, Paul re-focuses the attention of the Colossians from human ideas of spirituality to true spirituality in Christ. In verse 1 we read “1 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Believers have been raised with Christ. Again this is the language of baptism we looked at last week. Before we are baptized, we are fallen creatures, enslaved to our desires. But upon being baptized—in other words, upon accepting Christ Jesus as our Savior and Lord—we die to that old nature and are raised with Christ’s nature. We are new creations who now look not to ourselves but to Christ to live the lives he would have us live. Verse two underscores this emphasis: “2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” As new creatures, we need to own the dependent condition in which we were created. We need to look to God for our strength. We need to look to God to conform us into his image. We need to realize that human rules and regulations may appear to represent change but only God knows—only God can change—our hearts. Since he rose from the grave and ascended into heaven, Christ is now in his session. He is now seated at the right hand of God. He is now in a position of power and authority after, and he intercedes for us—he prays for us—and he has given us his Holy Spirit—so we can ever and always turn to him.
But here’s the wonder—here’s the beauty. As Paul tells us in verse 3, if we are believers, we have already died and our life is now hidden with Christ in God. If we are believers, we are no longer slaves to our passions. If we are believers, we—like Paul—are slaves to Christ. And we will never find a more loving, compassionate, and encouraging master than he. If we are believers, our eternal life with Christ has already begun. If we are believers, verse 4, when Christ—our life—appears, in other words when Christ returns, we, too, will appear with him in glory—in the life to come. As Paul states in I Cor. 13:12 “12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” And John, too, tells us in I John 3:2: “2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” Amen & amen!
Let us pray….