In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today is our fourth week on Colossians. We have one more week to go, which means that we’ll actually leave off on looking at Paul’s closing remarks. But so far, a couple of the major themes that we’ve looked at include Paul’s insistence on the centrality of Jesus Christ – that is to say that Jesus Christ alone is efficient and sufficient for salvation. Nothing else is needed and nothing can be added. The context into which Paul speaks this is what we began discussing last week. Specifically, there seems to be some sort of false teaching that is going on in the Colossian community that may lead them to believe precisely that something else is needed. It is to this kind of teaching that Paul warns:
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
Today we’re going to take a closer look at what some of those teachings – the hollow and deceptive philosophy – might look like.
Let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on in the passage. The main thing that I want to point out is that these verses don’t happen in isolation either from the verses preceding or from those following. In a nutshell, we read these verses as Paul admonishing or warning the church against legalism. This legalism may be the false teaching itself or it may be a result of the false teaching. The source may be a particularly Jewish understanding of the Gospel or Judaism may simply be one of a number of influences. At any rate, Paul is emphasizing that it is not a gospel understanding. Paul says:
16 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. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 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.
Notice what Paul says in v. 19. “They have lost connection with the head…” This leads us to believe that Paul is speaking about “Christians” here. The issue is not external (i.e. keep these forces/powers/philosophies) out of the church. They are already there. The issue, then, is discerning what, within the church, is of Christ and what is not.
Paul goes on to say:
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!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely 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.
When Paul says, “Since you died with Christ to the elemental forces of this world…” he seems to be saying that it is precisely that Christ frees us. He releases us from the perspectives of and the economy of the world.
Now this reminds us of the immediately preceding verses, that we looked at last week, which say:
9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh s was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken 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.
In other words, in Christ, there is a new way. There is a new way from that of the world. There is a new way from the deceptive and hollow philosophies. Now in particular, Paul is talking about the way of the world in which we need to earn our way to belonging. In our passage today, he says:
16 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. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
He goes on to say:
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!”?
Without putting too fine a point on it, and at the risk of over-generalizing or over-simplifying, Paul is warning against a human tendency towards legalism. This is something that Paul speaks about a lot.
In Romans 14:17, he says:
17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…
In Galatians 2:15, speaking about his encounter with Peter who followed the Jewish custom of not eating with gentiles, Paul says:
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Now while we don’t want to get too carried away, I believe that the bible tells us a lot about the dangers of legalism. But I said earlier that we shouldn’t read our passage today in isolation from either the verses preceding it or those following it. We’ll obviously talk more about it next week, but the following verses include this:
2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived.
Aren’t these verses from chapter 3 just another kind of legalism? Or, to put it another way, do the verses in chapter 3 contradict, in any way, the verses we’re looking at today.
Obviously, I think, they don’t. The short version of what I think is that the verses that we’re looking at today warn us specifically against human-instituted rules and regulation that claim to make us more saved. Or human understandings that claim to give us a bare minimum of what we must do or not do in order to be saved. I think that it’s to this kind of thinking that Paul would say, any teaching that questions or doubts the sufficiency of Christ, either for initial salvation or for spiritual growth and maturity, is precisely what Paul is speaking against. And as we have spoken about in length, we do this in churches, in Christian communities all the time.
However, I think that Paul would also say, and I think this is what he’s getting at in ch. 3, is that the point of being in Christ, the result of being in Christ, is to enter into a new kind of life – to enter into life as it was meant to be, as it is promised to be, and leave behind all that is not-life.
Indeed, the entire point of the “therefore,” with which Paul begins this section, is that we have entered into a new life – a Christ life. Therefore, since we have life in Christ, don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t – that you have to do more, that you have to work harder, to earn your place. Therefore, since we have life in Christ, live the life in Christ.
So What Now…?
In the history of the church, we have a whole sordid history of creating rules. Things that we have to do, that we cannot do, in order to be “good Christians.” At some point in our history, guitar and drums were not allowed (and in some Christian denominations, are still forbidden). For some of us, you had to wear a suit or a dress or a hat to church or you didn’t take God seriously. Maybe we say that you can’t watch movies, or at least you can’t watch certain kinds of movies. You certainly can’t listen to certain kinds of music. Now these are, to us, kind of silly examples. We mostly understand that these things aren’t “gospel.” But what about some other things?
In our lives, what are these rules? Who made them? Do they help us draw us closer to Christ? The life that Christ has meant us for? Or do they serve something else? Do they maybe serve someone else?
Our desire, as Christians, as church, as people of God, is to draw nearer to Jesus. To take hold of that for which Christ Jesus died for us. Our desire is to become more like him. Because in Him, we see who we were created to be. Paul’s exhortation here is not a free-for-all, to do whatever we feel like because we are “saved by grace.” It’s not a license for laxity. Rather, it is precisely because Christ has died so that we might have life, that we should pursue the life for which He died.