READ : Colossians 2:8-23
A lot of people have a problem with all the rules and rituals of religion. Well, here’s something that might surprise you; biblical Christianity – the kind taught by Paul the apostle – does too!
It’s funny about religion. Most people don’t have enough of it. They live their lives as if God wasn’t real or they didn’t have any responsibilities toward him. But other people seem to have too much of it. Religion, instead of being a good and healthy thing, becomes a sort of prison that not only traps them but in which they try to entangle others too.
Jesus’ enemies, the Pharisees, were people like that. He talked about how strict they were in obeying certain religious rules, such as tithing (giving ten percent of one’s income to God). So careful were the Pharisees about this that they even calculated the tithe on the spices grown in their kitchen gardens. But all the while they were neglecting what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law,” things like justice, mercy and love toward their fellow human beings. Jesus also criticized these religionists for their legalism, their tendency to define righteousness as a matter of keeping the rules, and for trying to impose the burden of those rules on everybody else.
Two things are clear from Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees. One is that in religion, some things are more important than others. God is much more concerned about the kind of people we are than the kind of rituals we perform. The other thing that’s clear is that religion has always been used by some people as a means of dominating or controlling others. One of the worst forms of human abuse is spiritual abuse. For some reason people who misuse religion aren’t content with ruining their own lives; they also feel a compulsion to enslave their neighbors in the same sort of system.
Paul was writing about just such false and manipulative religious leaders when he warned the Christians in Colossae not to be taken in by them.
Don’t let anyone tell you what you must eat or drink. Don’t let them say that you must celebrate the New Moon festival, the Sabbath, or any other festival. These things are only a shadow of what was to come. But Christ is real!
Don’t be cheated by people who make a show of acting humble and who worship angels. They brag about seeing visions. But it is all nonsense, because their minds are filled with selfish desires. They are no longer part of Christ, who is the head of the whole body. . . .
You died with Christ. Now the forces of the universe don’t have any power over you. Why do you live as if you had to obey such rules as, “Don’t handle this. Don’t taste that. Don’t touch this.”? . . . why be bothered with the rules that humans have made up? Obeying these rules may seem to be the smart thing to do. They appear to make you love God more and to be very humble and to have control over your body. But they don’t really have any power over our desires.
You have been raised to life with Christ. . . .
(Colossians 2:16-23, 3:1a, cev)
FREEDOM IN CHRIST
Paul gets a bit excited here because such an important principle is at stake. Following the rules of the religionists compromises the most basic truths of the gospel. “You died with Christ!” the apostle exclaims (v. 20). Stop and think for a moment about the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. What happened at the cross? Christ died. Why? He died for sin. Whose sin? Ours. And how are we saved? By putting our faith in Christ and trusting in the merits of his sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. What else? “You have been raised to life with Christ” (3:1). When we trust in Christ, we become so closely identified with him that our lives become his and his life becomes ours. This means that in Christ we have been liberated from the power of evil and from the condemnation of the law. So why would we even think of submitting to legalism or rules-keeping as a means of salvation? If we trust Christ, salvation is ours. Christ is our liberator. He sets us free from the burden of trying to earn merit by observing the laws of religion.
The false teachers in Colossae were piling human rules and traditions on top of the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. That is a serious matter indeed, and Paul is understandably bothered by it as we should be. Religious customs and traditions have a way of obscuring the gospel, especially the gospel truth that we can only be saved by God’s love operating through Christ, a love that is received by faith alone. Rules-makers and rules-keepers tend to think they’re saved by their own performance, and that if you don’t practice what they preach, you can’t be saved either.
Most of the regulations being urged upon the Colossian Christians had to do with worship: the times and seasons of worship (things like festivals, new moons, and the Sabbaths (v. 16), and the content and manner of worship (worshiping angels and other beings, with much emphasis upon visions and supernatural phenomena, v. 18). To all this was added a strong dose of asceticism (extreme forms of self-denial). The favorite words of these religionists were, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (v. 21, niv). Rules people, you know, are always big on prohibitions. They like to forbid people from enjoying even lawful human pleasures or comforts. And they always go beyond scripture. Scripture says do not commit adultery; the legalists say you can’t get married.
Paul’s response to all of this is to contrast it with the reality of Christ. “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (v. 17, niv). All sorts of religious customs and practices may be permissible, or even helpful. But the trouble starts when people confuse what is useful with what is necessary. Christ is real; everything else is a shadow compared to him. And all rites of worship, all forms of spiritual discipline, are optional. Only one thing is an absolute necessity, and that is to know and worship him, the Lord Jesus Christ.
A CRITIQUE OF LEGALISTIC RELIGION
Paul also offers the Christians in Colossae a critique of legalistic religion bringing to light its numerous flaws. We must be clear in understanding what he is criticizing. Paul is not talking about the Ten Commandments here; Christ does not liberate us from the responsibility of keeping God’s moral law. Christian freedom is not the freedom to murder, or lie, or steal, or engage in sexual immorality. No, what he is talking about is the vast assortment of behaviors and practices which are neither specifically commanded nor condemned in Scripture. This is the area where the legalists thrive. These secondary matters are what make up all the contents of their religious traditions.
Paul’s first criticism of this kind of religion that consists of following human rules and regulations is that it is worldly, not spiritual. “Why do you live as if you still belong to the world? Why do you submit to regulations?” he asks (v. 20, nrsv). Legalism seems very spiritual. It appears to be quite holy and pious. We have the impression that those who keep the most rules are really the keenest Christians, the most spiritually advanced. Everyone else seems second-rate in comparison. But this is, in fact, a worldly approach to living one’s faith. The world’s idea of religion is that it consists of strenuous effort on our part to make ourselves righteous. Religion’s key word is law; God’s key word is grace. Legalism is worldly because it tries to substitute salvation by good works for salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ.
Next, Paul reminds us that legalistic religion is human, not divine. “All these regulations . . . are simply human commands and teachings” (v. 22, nrsv). Those who push their rules in God’s name, claiming his sanction and authority, are really simply putting forward their own views. But God does not advocate holiness and spiritual growth by means of harsh denial and ascetic discipline, any more than he wants to be worshiped by the thoughtless repetition of empty words or rituals. Growth in genuine holiness is not measured by how much you punish your body or how many things you deprive yourself of. The Bible says that “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:3-4).
Finally, Paul points out that the practice of following rules legalistically is actually foolish, not wise. “Such regulations . . . have an appearance of wisdom” (v. 23, niv), but they don’t actually help us to grow in genuine godliness. You might think that living an extremely disciplined life of rules-keeping would help you to love God more and draw closer to him, that it would make you more holy and give you more self-control. But it actually doesn’t. The trouble, you see, is that performance-based religion doesn’t overcome our real problem, which is our inward sinful nature (see v. 23). In fact, it usually makes things worse, because whatever gains might be made in matters of outward behavior are more than offset by the pride this generates in our hearts.
SOME PRACTICAL ADVICE
So what should we do? Paul writes three brief words of exhortation here in Colossians 2 addressed to Christians who are struggling with leaders or traditions that are spiritually abusive. Word one: Don’t let them enslave you. “See to it that no one takes you captive through . . . human tradition” (v. 8, nrsv). It’s not that Christians should be indifferent to discipline. On the contrary; self-control is a fruit of God’s Spirit (Gal. 2:25). We must learn to say no to ungodliness and to live godly, upright, and sober lives (Titus 2:11). It’s not that we don’t have to practice self-denial, or listen to the counsel of pastors and teachers. No, as Christians we must be submissive to legitimate authority. We want to be teachable. We’re ready to give up anything for the sake of the Lord. But – and this is the point – we do so as free men and women. Our discipline comes from within and is voluntary, not imposed by those who assume they should tell us what to do and not to do.
Word Two: Don’t let them judge you unfairly. “Do not let anyone condemn you” (v. 16, nrsv). Legalistic religious authorities tend to be very judgmental. You can’t stop them from condemning you, but you don’t have to let it affect you. “It is a small thing for me to be judged by you,” Paul once said to some of his critics (1 Cor. 4:3). Why? Because “it is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:4). Paul knew that because he belonged to Christ, Christ’s was the only judgment that really mattered to him.
Word Three: Don’t let them exclude you. “Do not let anyone disqualify you” (v. 18, nrsv). Paul uses a word here from athletics. “Don’t let the referee throw you out of the game,” he is saying. One of the things spiritual abusers always do is to try to exclude everyone who doesn’t agree with them. “Only those who follow our rules and accept our teaching will be saved,” they say. If you fail to conform, you are rejected. Well, never mind. Don’t be bothered by them. They may be able to expel you from their group, but they don’t have the authority to exclude you from God’s kingdom or from Christ’s body.
So don’t worry about all the self-anointed authorities. Don’t be taken in by the appearance of legalism. Don’t let any of the spiritual abusers rob you of the freedom that is yours in Christ. Don’t let them frighten you with their threats or their condemnation. Just remember that the only one to whom you must ultimately answer is the Lord Jesus Christ. So make it your aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9).