16-17 So don’t put up with anyone pressuring you in details of diet, worship services, or holy days. All those things are mere shadows cast before what was to come; the substance is Christ.
In the first verses of the lesson Paul outlines the first heretical teaching that is endangering the Church in Colossae: Empty Ritual or religious restrictions and practices that related to Jewish circumcision, festivals, and even Sabbath observance. These food restrictions, special diets, observance of special ceremonies and days arose out of Jewish practices. God instituted many of these ceremonies in ancient times for those times as a picture of the glory that was to come. For example the Festivals of Booths/Tabernacles was commemorated to celebrate that God had tabernacled with God’s people during the wilderness wanderings. However, now that Jesus has come in the “fullness of time,” the Festival of Booths no longer needs to be celebrated because Christians have Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Shadows are pictures, mere glances that are given in advance, and designed to prepare us for something. But according to Paul if we have Christ, we no longer need the shadows. To persist in placing primary value on the shadow (the Jewish festivals/Jewish circumcision/ new moons, Sabbaths) after the Jesus has come destroys our participation abundant/full life that Jesus provides.
Jesus is the reality! He is our Center; the Source of excitement in our experience. He is the One who accompanies us through life, to comfort in times of need and strengthen when we are being tempted. He is a place of refuge to run to when we are troubled or uncertain about life. To lose Him is to lose all vitality in life. That is the danger in observing shadows. Thus, Paul says, “Don’t let anyone spoil you by involving you in a mechanical performance that will cancel out the reality.”
Further, Paul is saying that the Jews fell into a mechanical religious performance a long time ago. Their rituals and practices were just that—rituals and practices. They failed to embrace the full understanding of their religious practices when they reduced them to “something I have to do” as opposed to “something I get to do.” Contemporary Christians can also fall into this trap when we fail to take full advantage of the worship experience. If we merely mouth the words of the hymns when we sing, if we let our minds wander during prayer, if we turn our minds off during the Sermon, we are destroying something. We are engaging in a religious mechanical performance that not only says nothing to God but destroys something in us. We are indulging in a form of hypocrisy; of looking like we’re doing something valuable and helpful when, in actuality, we’re not.
“What do we lose by this kind of performance?” Intensity and intimacy. Christ becomes distant and far off from us. We no longer walk with Him day by day, moment by moment. To lose God as our Center is to lose ourselves. Therefore, all of life becomes dull and empty. We find ourselves engaged in a futile search for an anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life.
18-19 Don’t tolerate people who try to run your life, ordering you to bow and scrape, insisting that you join their obsession with angels and that you seek out visions. They’re a lot of hot air, that’s all they are. They’re completely out of touch with the source of life, Christ, who puts us together in one piece, whose very breath and blood flow through us. He is the Head and we are the body. We can grow up healthy in God only as he nourishes us.
The second wrong idea that Paul lists is Mysticism. False humility and the worship of angels are two elements of the false teaching in this context. Gnosticism held that there is a hierarchy of angels between all human beings and God which must be placated and acknowledged, and that our knowledge, which began in virtual ignorance, increased with such contact until, at last, one entered into the fullness of understanding of the Oneness of all things.
This heresy appears widely today under the name of various new age movements—Scientology (the study and handling of the spirit in relationship to itself, others and all of life), New Thought/Higher Thought (true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind, and “right thinking” has a healing effect), The Illuminati (secret society comprised of those who believe that they have superior enlightenment), or Humanism (the idea that humans are the center of active development and creation in the universe—essentially there is no God, or God is unconcerned with human affairs so we have to do it for ourselves.) At the heart of these movements is the claim to seek the true Oneness of things. The claim is that this is the way to escape from being centered in self, and so move into the fullness of knowledge of the universe. Paul refers to it here as a “false humility.” It claims to move us beyond self, but in actual practice, they focus on self. Collectively, these are called the human potential movement—the idea that everything is already there inside of us, and all we need to do is bring it out and develop our possibilities and full potential.
The danger of this false teaching is that it replaces Jesus Christ as the Lord of our lives. If we have firmly planted ourselves as the head of our lives, then we have firmly excluded Christ from the primary position. Such a rejection excludes us from salvation. It eliminates us from the possibility of experiencing Christ as our Hope of glory. Such error will effectively remove all opportunity for the continued experience of love, joy and peace. If we claim to be God ourselves, then we have no one above us to look up to; we only look down on everybody else. That is the danger and the folly of this false teaching.
In verse 19 Paul tells us that who fall victim to this teaching have lost connection with Christ, and subsequently, lost connection with His body, the Church. We are no longer fed by Pastors and by Teachers (“muscles and tendons”), and, therefore, we stop growing completely. Mysticism arrests growth. If we want to mature, we must follow Jesus, who said: “Follow Me!”
20-23 So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that puffed-up and childish religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it? “Don’t touch this! Don’t taste that! Don’t go near this!” Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention? Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice. They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and austere. But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.
In the final verses of the lesson pericope, Paul addresses the third false teaching, Pagan Asceticism. Asceticism is over-developed zeal, a dedication that goes far beyond true Christian discipline and seeks to please God by extreme forms of self-denial. Dedication and discipline are a proper part of the Christian life. We often must make ourselves do what God wants us to do, simply because we love Him—that’s the proper motivation. And we should not forget that Paul has already commended the Colossians for leading disciplined, well-ordered lives.
It is important to note that there were those in Christian tradition who practiced asceticism and taught its importance as a form of Christian discipleship. For example the African Desert Fathers and Mothers practiced ascetic practices what shaped early monasticism and much of our early Christian theology. However, its crucial to understand that the Desert Ascetics recognized that their practices reflected a reliance on God’s grace through Christ Jesus and not human achievement.
There is nothing wrong with fasting and other principles of self-denial. But if we’re not careful, we can make a god of discipline; we can take perverse delight in making ourselves do difficult things that win the approval of others, and (you imagine), of God as well. As a monk, Martin Luther fell into this before he became a Church reformer. He would lie naked in his cell all night long in the bitter cold and he beat his body and tortured himself, trying to find peace of heart.
Paul says this is wrong. Lesser forms of it take negative approaches (“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!). Most of us grew up in Churches that taught there were certain things that Christians must always avoid, and if we observed these prohibitions, we not only were acceptable to the religious community but we were actually pleasing God—never drink, never smoke, never gamble, etc. Certainly, refraining from some of these things is a perfectly proper discipline (and wise practically), but any idea that giving up of things of itself is pleasing to God, is wrong. Christianity is a positive faith. To practice it properly, we yield to the control of the Holy Spirit to help us to do things that we can’t do on our own; that is how true faith is demonstrated.
“What is wrong with Asceticism?” Three things:
1. It’s evidence that we don’t understand our death with Christ. Since we died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, we should not still submit to them as though we still belonged to them. To do so is to return to childish, immature behavior—thinking that God will be pleased by our negative approach to life.
In the Church this becomes legalism, which is to pursue holiness by self-effort, instead of accepting the holiness that God freely gives, by faith, and then living it out in terms of experience. A legalist looks at life and says, “Everything is wrong unless you can prove by the Bible that it is right. Therefore, we must have nothing to do with anything that the Bible does not say is right.” That reduces life to a very narrow range of activity. But the biblical Christian looks at life and says, “Everything is right! God has given us a world to enjoy and live in. Everything is right, unless the Bible specifically says it is wrong.” If we are willing to obey God in the areas that He designates as harmful and dangerous, then we have the rest of life to enter into in company with a Savior who loves us, guides and guards us.
2. Whatever benefit these things may gain it is only temporary, it all ends at death. Outwardly we look good, but inwardly we are like a grave full of rotting bones. Our scrupulous refusal to live normal lives may give us certain status and privilege, but it will all prove worthless in the end.
3. These things are of no value in restraining the indulgence of the flesh. People may outwardly appear dedicated and disciplined, but inwardly sin rages unchecked. Inside they are angry, resentful, filled with vituperation and a spirit of vengeance. Many Christians have this problem. They are trying to regulate the externals instead of walking in the fullness and freshness of life with Jesus Christ, finding the inward purity and cleansing that he alone provides.
All these errors have one thing in common—they overlook Christ. If we fall into any of these, we lose the vitality and vigor of our Christian walk. Life becomes dull and often desperate. We must take care that every day we are in touch with our loving Lord and walking in fellowship with Him. He is the One who can develop the self-life, and yet keep us from being captured by the great god, Self. He will restore and comfort us when we fail and falter, and in submission to him we will find the freedom we seek.