(Col 2:16 ESV) 16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.
The false teaching Paul preaches against has the ability to destroy God’s kingdom by dividing brother from brother and even brother from God. And the way that happens is through our judging one another on non-Kingdom issues, issues that aren’t about the mission of God.
Evidently, the Jews in Colosse were judging the Gentiles regarding whether they ate kosher foods only and whether they honored the Sabbath and other Jewish holy days. In the Roman world, the Jews used precisely these things to separate themselves from the Gentile, to mark themselves as dedicated to God. These were the signs of a faithful Jew.
In Galatians, Paul declares that seeking salvation through such things is to fall from grace. In Romans 14, Paul commands his readers not to judge one another over such things. Here his command is not let others judge you. And that’s an important element we often forget.
You see, a church leader who lets his church be judged over such things will soon find that there’s no end to what scruples and rules others will bind on the church. As important as it is to tell those judging you not to judge others, it’s just important to tell those judged to stop giving power and influence to the legalists! The only way to end the influence of the legalists is to refuse to yield to them.
Of course, we must respect Paul’s commands in Romans 14 not to tempt someone weak in the faith into sinning against his conscience, but that doesn’t mean we therefore never do anything that offends someone. Every good work ever done by the church offends someone. There is no sin in giving offense. The sin is in putting a person with a weak conscience in a situation where peer pressure causes her to violate her conscience.
But that absolutely doesn’t mean that the most legalistic members of the church get to have their way! Indeed, I find that our legalistic members are rarely tempted to sin against their consciences. Rather, their sin is in judging others, and the rest of us have to honor Paul’s command not let them do that.
(Col 2:17 ESV) 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
The Jewish practices are called but a “shadow,” not the reality. Imagine seeing the shadow of a person long before he turns a corner and reveals himself. Obviously, the shadow is temporary and inadequate — not the full revelation of the person himself. Just so, these boundary markers on which the Jews depended to separate themselves from the Gentiles were never really meant for that purpose. Rather, God gave the festivals and Sabbaths for the Jews’ benefit and instruction. It was the Jews, not God, who made them into the very definition of a Jew.
You see, we do the same thing. The essence of being a Christian is being Christ-like. We all learned that in the first grade. But we distinguish ourselves from others by our pattern of worship and church organization — which have nothing to do with how Christ lived his life or the commands he taught. We refuse to see the real test as how much like Christ someone is, because that doesn’t adequately separate us from others. And like the Jews in Colosse, we very much want to be separated so we can feel superior.
(Col 2:18 ESV) 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,
Paul now warns the legalists that they are at risk of being disqualified. “Disqualify” is an athletic term, meaning that the umpire or referee takes the prize away from you. Paul is warning the legalists that they risk damnation by their teaching — and this is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Galatians 5.
But Paul now speaks of “asceticism,” the “worship of angels,” and “visions.” It’s not likely that he intends to move from Jews to Gentiles. Rather, most commentators conclude that the Jewish Christians had blended Judaism with Grecian asceticism. Only Jews would know enough about angels to worship them. After all, the Jewish community in Colosse had been there for centuries, in a backwater town, in the heart of a country that had been Grecian for even more centuries. They’d evidently created a syncretic (blended) religion.
“Sensuous mind” is more precisely “mind of the flesh,” meaning a mind controlled by our sinful, unredeemed natures. This tells us just how passionately Paul disagrees with asceticism. It’s the very opposite of Godly thinking, because it places faith in our own accomplishments and because it pictures a God who enjoys our misery.
(Col 2:19 ESV) and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
The “Head” is, of course, Christ. Asceticism lets go of the Head and seeks salvation through our own accomplishments and our own brilliance at discerning secret commands that no one else discovered.
But our relationship with the Head is not about obedience to arbitrary or positive commands. It’s organic — a living relationship in which Jesus himself works in us (through the Spirit) to grow. God brings growth through the Spirit, within us, not by our discovery of new rules or seeking out ecstatic visions. It’s God himself, through the Spirit, who holds us together with his Son.
(Col 2:20-22 ESV) 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings?
In Christ, we died to sin. In Christ we died to the flesh — our sinful natures. And we died to something Paul calls “the elements.” Stoicheia refers to the basic things. Paul may be referring to the “shadows,” the way things were under the Law before the appearance of Jesus. He may be referring to nature of the world outside of Jesus. Those are, of course, very similar thoughts.
Paul condemns the commands “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” because these are rules about temporary things — things that wear out or are digested. Why would God send Jesus to warn us against pork when pork is simply digested and disposed of? Why would God care about festivals, when these are but reminders of God’s mighty works? God cares that we remember who he is! But he doesn’t care whether we hold a feast to celebrate it.
Paul urges us to distinguish between things of eternal significance and temporary things designed to instruct us about eternal things. Eternal things don’t wear out. And if we are arguing about things that do — buildings, instruments, communion cups, the church treasury — then we are likely arguing about the wrong things. Those things can be done in ways that honor God or dishonor God, but they are neither inherently good nor inherently bad.
(Gal 3:24-26 ESV) 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
Similarly, Paul refers to the Law as a “guardian” or pedagogue — an instructor for children. The Law was temporary and points to something higher and better. It’s not just that God has changed the rules; God has gone from rules about the temporary and mere reminders to the rules that really and truly matter.
Now, notice that Paul refers to these Greco-Jewish rules as “human precepts and teachings.” Many of the rules the Colossians insisted on are found in the Bible. But that doesn’t keep them from being human rules — if God did not mean for these rules to define the boundaries and nature of the Kingdom. Paul is pushing us to think in Kingdom terms and mission terms, not arbitrary rules that someone divines from a silence or an inference of 12 verses scattered across the scriptures. Learn to think in Kingdom terms because only then can you tell what are truly God’s precepts and what are God’s precepts distorted into merely human precepts.
(Col 2:23 ESV) 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
“Self-made religion” is translated “will worship” in the KJV. “Worship” is more literal that “religion,” but the New Testament makes no distinction between the two. What Paul condemns is worshipping by rules made by man. In other words, Paul condemns making up extra rules for God.
It is not safe to invent rules just to be safe. It’s not safe to ignore rules just to be safe. Indeed, the whole enterprise of finding the hidden rules for how to worship is extremely dangerous because there’s no way to resolve doubts. If you think X just might be a rule, well, if you guess wrong and impose it, then you’re guilty of “will worship” because you’ve imposed a merely human rule. But if it really is God’s rule and you ignore it, then you’re disobedient! This whole approach is utterly, completely wrong.
Such rules have nothing to do with “stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Whether or not we worship with an instrument, whether or not we have the Freed-Hardeman chorus sing after the closing prayer, whether or not we use recorded music for our weddings, we are just as likely to be guilty of the sins that God actually cares about. We are asking the wrong questions.
In just a few verses, Paul urges —
(Col 3:8-14 ESV) 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. 12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
What does “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” have to do with such things? How does binding rules on how to worship help us with any of these things?
You see, we skip the heart of Paul’s teaching — love each other and therefore get rid of attitudes and behaviors that are unloving — and emphasize imagined rules about how we can or can’t support missionaries or can or can’t drink the wine of communion. We imagine that God is like us, caring more about the doctrines that define us as separate from others, rather than caring about whether we truly share in his mission to redeem the world from sin.
You see, the Fall of Genesis 3 was all about the breaking of relationships, and Paul’s core instructions are about focusing on those commands that show us how to get along. Getting along is a big deal to God.
(John 13:34-35 ESV) 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
(Mat 22:37-40 ESV) 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Along with faith and hope, this is the core of Christianity. And the commands that encourage and support this kind of living are the ones God truly cares about — and the ones that show us to be unlike non-Christians.
The boundaries of the Kingdom aren’t formed out of five acts of worship or the pattern of church organization or the name of the church. The boundaries are faith, hope, and love. And these will help us avoid the indulgence of the flesh, because only in these is found the power of God to resist and to choose.