The Incomparable Christ
Please turn with me in your Bibles to Colossians, chapter 2. We continue our study in this great book. We have been saying throughout this study that the theme of this book is that believers are complete in Christ, and in the first chapter in particular we saw the apostle Paul stress this point in the positive. He focuses singularly on the incomparable Christ, and he says, “Christ is the supreme Savior. He is the sole-mediator of His people. And because He is supreme—because He is the supreme Savior—He is everything you need spiritually. So don’t look anywhere else but Him.” So in the first chapter, Paul focuses on Christ.
In this second chapter, Paul begins to warn Christians against types of teaching which contradict the sufficiency of Christ as our sole-mediator. And the last time we studied in verse 4 and in verse 8 of this chapter, we saw him directly address—directly give warnings against teachings which contradict the sufficiency of Christ as our Mediator. For instance, in verse 4, we saw, a couple of weeks ago, that he told us not to be deluded by persuasive argument. And then in verse 8, last week, we saw that he tells us not to be taken captive by false teaching, false philosophy, speculations. In both of these passages, Paul is concerned that the Colossians not adopt a teaching which is—though not overtly contradictory to the gospel, it is in fact implicitly contradictory to the gospel. Don’t adopt a mindset of speculation, even though it comes with persuasive speech and very impressive abstract logical speculative thought. Even though these things come in this form, do not adopt this teaching which is in fact contradictory of the gospel that was first preached to you.
And in fact, the whole of chapter 2 contains a list of warnings. We’re going to look at the last three warnings, but let me just point them to you briefly before we read the word. Paul gives five warnings in chapter 2: In verse 4, he gives a warning against persuasive speech. Even though it sounds good, the content of it is contradictory to the gospel. In verse 8, he says to be on guard against false speculations. These are speculations that are not based on the word of God. In fact, in verse 8, he says three things about those speculations. First of all, those speculations are manmade. They are not in accordance with the word of God.
Secondly, he says they are rudimentary. They deal with worldly principles which are child’s play in comparison to the revelation of God. And finally, they are not in accord with Christ. In other words, he says in verse 8, that these teachings are in fact contradictory of what he has been preaching to them about Christ. So that’s the second warning we see in this book. Then we move on down to verse 16 where he warns them against legalism. “Be on guard against legalism,” Paul says. In verse 18, he goes on to warn them against false worship—in fact, against the worship of angels. And then in verse 20, he warns them against asceticism.
We’re going to look at verses 16-23, and we’ll look at each of these warnings. Now let me just say very briefly, before we read the word of God, that you may be wondering how in the world could a warning against legalism, angel worship, and asceticism possibly be applicable to me in First Presbyterian Church at the end of the 20th century. It is, I promise. I’ll show you how.
Let’s hear now the word of God. Let me remind you that this is God’s inerrant word. God’s word is God’s word. The words are given to us by God. He has inspired the word, and this is the very revelation of God—not only the ideas of the word are His and inerrant, but the very words are His inerrant words. Let us hear them then, beginning in verse 16:
“Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”
Thus ends this reading of God’s holy word. May He add his blessing to it. Let’s look to him again in prayer.
Lord, we do confess this is your word. And we desire to be believing hearers of it. But we also desire to be obedient to this word. Help our hearts to be bowed before this word; and so not only to agree with what it says in our minds, but to agree with what it says in our wills and our actions. For we know that our Lord told us not simply to be hearers but to be doers of the word. As you work this in us by the Spirit, we’ll give you the praise and the glory. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Last week, we saw the apostle Paul stress, in response to the false speculations that were being given to the Colossians, that Christians must remember who Christ is, what He has done, and that we are in union with Him. And in fact, last week, in verses 10-15 the apostle Paul showed us some of the benefits which flow from our being united to Christ. You will remember, for instance, that he said Christians who are in fellowship with Christ, in communion Christ, in union with Christ, gain specifically three benefits. We gain fullness, he says in verse 10. In Christ there is the fullness, he had said in verse 9. In verse 10, he tells us we are complete in Christ. You want fullness of faith? You want to really grow in grace? You do it in Christ. You don’t start with Christ and move onto something else. You start with Christ, and you stay with Christ; because all the fullness is him. You are complete in Christ. Furthermore, he tells us in verses 13 and 14, that forgiveness is in Christ, in relationship to Christ, in faith—In saving, faithful relationship with Christ, there is forgiveness. And finally in verse 15, he reminds us that there is freedom in Christ.
Today we come to verse 16 and following, and we see him issuing these three warnings that I’ve already alluded to. And I’d like to look at them with you in the time that we have this morning.
I. Christians must not allow men to judge them according to manmade ritual rules.
First of all, we see Paul set down this principle in verse 16: He says that Christians must not allow men to judge them according to manmade ritual rules. Notice his words in verse 16, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—“ Apparently these Colossian teachers, these new teachers in Colossae, were teaching two things. They were saying, on the one hand, that these Gentile Christians had to obey the Old Testament ritual, ceremonial law with regard to festivals, feast days, new moons, and the seventh-day Sabbath. Though they were Christians, they were not only to gather on the Lord’s Day, but they were to observe the Sabbath and the festivals and the feasts and the new moons. Furthermore, they were giving instruction about food and drink.
Now, there’s not much in the Old Testament about drink, but there’s a lot about food, and particularly the regulations about clean and unclean food. And apparently these teachers were saying, “Look Colossian Christians, if you really want to become a super-Christian, then you are going to have to obey the Old Testament ceremonial law about not eating unclean food. You’re going to have to obey those codes, and that’s going to lead you into greater fullness.” In response to that type of teaching, which took a little bit from the Old Testament ceremonial law and added in another little bit from simply human regulations which go beyond the word, these Colossian teachers, teaching that to the people in the church, the apostle Paul is responding to them and saying, “No! Don’t let anyone set themselves up as your judge in these matters. You are not to allow them to judge you either according to the Old Testament ceremonial code which is passed away in Christ, or to judge you by manmade religious rituals. You are not to allow that to happen.”
And the apostle Paul gives a specific rationale for that in verse 17. Why is it Christians don’t obey that ceremonial code? He says that that code was but a shadow; Christ is the substance. In other words, the Lord Jesus is that which those things pointed to as a foreshadowing. Those things taught ahead of time something about the work of Christ. Christ has fulfilled it, and therefore believers do not continue to obey those ceremonial ordinances. The ordinances are the shadow; Christ is the substance. Paul is saying, “Don’t pass by the substance, the reality, to go back to the shadow, to go back to the type, to go back to the foreshadowing. You stay with Christ.”
Paul’s words are a rebuke against legalism. And let me say that this legalism, even in this passage, comes in two types. First of all, it comes in a misunderstanding and a misuse of God’s law. Notice that these people are not using God’s law rightly; they are using it wrongly. They misunderstand it. They think that the ceremonial codes must be obeyed by Christians, and therefore they misapply, they misuse the law of God. And the apostle Paul says that is legalism, don’t you let yourself be bound up by it. On the other hand, these people are quite happy to add manmade additions to the law. They are happy to come up with things which the Scriptures do not command and tell the Colossians you must do this in order to be a good Christian. The apostle Paul says both of those legalisms must be rejected.
Let me just remind you that those types of legalisms have always been with us. And even though we live in an age which does not have a tendency towards legalism, we have a tendency towards radical freedom in every sense. Those two legalisms are still with us. It’s very important for us, as we think of this, to remember two or three things in application of this word.
First of all, we must know what legalism is if we’re going to be on guard against it. So often Christians think that legalism means caring too much about God’s law and God’s word. That’s not what legalism means. The Pharisees did not care too much about God’s law. Jesus never accused them of that. Jesus said the problem with the Pharisees was they had a pretense of caring about the law of God but they, in fact, undercut it by the way they lived, by the way they spoke, and by what they taught. The Pharisees either taught that believers must keep the Old Testament ceremonial ordinances for their justification, or they taught and they added extra biblical regulations to God’s revelation. So, in Matthew 5, Jesus rebukes them for both of those things. The law does not save us; it can only condemn and serve as a standard for righteousness. But it cannot save. The Pharisees didn’t understand that. On the other hand, they added to the law, thinking that by adding restrictions to the law they could produce greater holiness. We must know what legalism is. Legalism is not caring too much about the law; it’s misusing the law, or it is adding to God’s law what he has in fact not added.
On the other hand, we must know what the law is for—not only we know what legalism is; we must know what God’s law is for, if we are to avoid legalism. The Reformers said that the law was lawfully used in three ways.
First of all, the law serves to drive us to Christ. The Reformers taught that the law of God can serve to show us our sin, and therefore show us our need of Christ. The law also serves to restrain sin in the society. When the moral law is applied safely and consistently, sin is restrained in society, and justice is done to criminals, and justice is done to victims. Victims are protected; the righteous are blessed; and those who have done wickedly are punished. So the law can serve to be a blessing in the civil sense.
But the Reformers also taught that the law could be used in a third way for believers. Once believers are redeemed in Christ, the law becomes not our enemy, not our condemner, but our blesser, because the law is there to show us the will of God for our lives. And as we follow it, we not only glorify God, but we receive good and blessing ourselves. And so it is the perfect standard of righteousness for the believer.
It’s important for us to remember that, because in this day and age we hear much about Christian liberty and Christian freedom. But very often that Christian liberty and Christian freedom is defined in this way: Christian freedom is freedom from obedience. So often we hear people tell us that Christian freedom means that we do not have to obey. We just ought to want to obey. That’s not Christian freedom at all. Christian freedom is not freedom from obedience; it’s freedom to obedience. God has freed us from the condemning power of the law in order that we are free to joyfully do the law. Are we still obligated to the law? Absolutely. Do we do it in our own strength? Absolutely not. We obey the law by grace. And so Christian freedom leads not to bondage, but to freedom—the freedom which only comes with holiness. The irony is that license—that this radical, unprincipled, unbiblical freedom—though it claims to bring freedom, it in fact brings bondage.
And that leads us to a third application of this first truth, that Christians are not to give in to other people’s judging them according to manmade standards. We, Paul says, must be on guard against legalism. And you say legalism in this licentious age? Legalism when everyone is doing what’s right in their own eyes? How could we possibly fall victim to legalism? Oh, yes. We could fall victim to legalism. In fact, when you begin to allow what God forbids, it is a principle that you will begin to forbid what God allows. When you begin to allow what God forbids, you will soon begin to forbid what God allows.
Let me give you an illustration. Today we live in the age of political correctness—in the educational community, in the business community, in the community at large. Has political correctness brought freedom? Oh, no. It’s brought the most frightening and most arbitrary tyranny. You never know when you are going to do something which is out of accord with the reigning political correctness. Political correctness came along to save us from Judeo-Christian values and absolutes, and all these horrible things that have plagued the nation. It was going to bring freedom and equity and equality and justice for all.
What has it brought? Tyranny. You see, when traditional Christian absolutes are broken down, you aren’t left with no standards. You’re left with arbitrary, pagan, imposed standards by an immoral elite and an indifferent majority. You’re not left with no standards; you’re left with whatever the latest fad is determining what is right and wrong. And it is the most binding oppression that you could ever experience. Oh, yes, we could fall victim to legalism; because where license reigns, legalism is just one step behind. Paul says, “Be on guard against this type of legalism.”—that comes in with manmade rules to rule your lives, because this type of license (of which we’ve spoken) leads to bondage just as well as this type of legalism.
II. Christians must not allow themselves to be defrauded by false humility and worship.
Secondly, we see in verses 18 and 19, Paul set down this principle: Christians must not allow themselves to be defrauded of the prize by false humility and false worship. He says specifically, “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of angels.” Paul is here taking on angel worship. And we know that this angel worship was a common practice in the cities of the Lycus Valley. So this was not uncommon that there would be someone coming to the Colossians and suggesting to them that they should worship angels.
Now the connection between humility or self-abasement and angel worship is a little less clear. Is Paul saying that these men are coming to the Colossians and saying, “We are so humble before God that we would never dare approach Him directly, but we would always approach Him through some sort of a created mediator—a created intermediary. And so in order to show our humility to God, we’re going to worship Him through angels.” Maybe they were arguing that. Or maybe Paul is talking about the humility and self-abasement which is actually involved in falling down and worshipping a created being. It doesn’t really matter though. Paul says that this humility—this professed humility—of these teachers is false humility. True humility bows the knee to God, and therefore is humble in its relation to man. But true humility does not bow the knee to created beings, to man, or even to angels. And so the apostle Paul condemns this practice of angel worship that was being fostered by the false teachers in Colossae.
He gives again two arguments why this angel worship is wrong. And you see it in verses 18 and 19. He says, “First of all, this teaching is wrong because it comes from man-originated visions.” And second of all he says, “It is not in accord with Christ.” In verses 18 and 19, look at his phrase, “taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head.” Three things he says in those little phrases.
First of all, he says that the person that is teaching this angel worship is taking his stand on visions. This man claims to have had visions from the Lord—perhaps angelic visions or some other visions which taught him to teach the worship of angels. And the apostle Paul tells you exactly what he thinks of that vision in the next phrase, “inflated without cause by his fleshly mind.” The apostle Paul rejects that vision. The apostle Paul says, “That vision is not from God. That vision is fleshly. It’s not spiritual; it’s worldly. Reject it. It is not from God. It comes from this man’s own mind. Therefore reject it.”
And then in the first phrase of verse 19, he says, “This man is not holding fast to the head.” In other words, he’s not in accord with Christ. This teaching is not one which recognizes the importance of believers being in vital union with Christ. And for those two reasons, the apostle Paul says, “Reject those teachings. Reject the view that we must worship God through created mediators.”
My friends, you wouldn’t have thought perhaps at the beginning of this service that there were pertinent applications of this warning against angel worship for us today at First Presbyterian Church, but there are. Isn’t it interesting that the most influential cult group in the world, which started in America last century, Mormonism, claims to have received its teaching from an angel named Moroni who brought special revelation to supplement the word of God. And now they grow perhaps more rapidly than any other group in the world today. And they inculcate a worship which is not in accord with the gospel that the apostle Paul taught. Isn’t it interesting that the greatest non-Christian threat in the world today, Islam, originated with the appearance of an angel to Muhammad, who gave him a calling and told him to go and teach something which was not in accord with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Oh, it is very pertinent today that we be warned against angel worship. You can go to any city bookstore, and you can find rack after rack after rack of new age books on angels today. You can’t find a biblical devotional book; you can’t find an orthodox Christian book. But you can find every manner of new age teaching about angels, including the worship of angels and how angels can make your spiritual life more rich and full. So my friends, the apostle Paul is speaking directly to this type of activity. And had you told me or anyone else in this congregation 50 years ago that mainline Protestants were going to worship, not just angels, but other gods, we would have laughed. But Methodists and Presbyterians and Lutherans and Baptists gathered less than two years ago to worship the goddess Sophia in the Re-Imagining God Conference held in the north. Oh, my friends, there is more to Paul’s warning applicable than you might think at first glance.
We must be on guard against any type of worship, against any type of belief that compromises the sole-sufficiency of Christ’s mediator. When someone tells us that a human being, whether a saint or anyone else, is necessary for us in order to be able to commune with the living God, we must reject that teaching. When someone tells us that we must commune with God through the mediation of angels, we must reject that teaching. Because even if they do not deny outright the mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ, they do it implicitly. Christ is the only way to God, and Paul in this word is reminding us that we must be on guard against any kind of teaching that compromises that reality in our own Christian experience.
III. Christians must not submit to manmade, ethical decrees.
And then you see in verses 20-23 his third warning, his third condemnation. “Christians,” he says, “you must not submit to manmade ethical decrees.” Look at verses 20 and 21. “Do not submit yourselves to decrees, such as, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’” Again, the Colossian teachers in this hodgepodge of philosophy that they are given to the people in Colossae are telling them, “Now if you really want to grow, you’re going to have to follow these harsh, ascetic practices.” They were fostering asceticism, and asceticism simply means the abuse or the denial of a body for spiritual purposes, for the purposes of spiritual growth. That’s asceticism, and asceticism has been around in every culture, in every religion for thousands and thousands of years. The apostle Paul is saying, “Reject that type of teaching. It’s not in accord with the word, and it misunderstands the problem of sin.” You understand the argument of the asceticist. He says, “The problem with us is that we’re too fleshly. We’re too caught up in the fleshly lusts and indulgences in the material body. And if we can abuse the body, we can become more spiritual people.” The apostle Paul says, “That totally misunderstands the sin problem.” The sin problem lies in the heart. And by the abuse of the flesh, the sin problem cannot be corrected.
In fact, Paul gives again two arguments against this type of practice that’s being fostered by the false teachers in Colossae. In verse 22, he tells us it’s manmade. It is in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men. It’s not according to God’s word; it’s not found in God’s word. But they say, “Oh, these practices are very important. They’re absolutely essential.” He says, “Reject that teaching.”
Secondly in verse 23, he says, “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement in the severe treatment of the body; but they are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” What’s Paul saying? They don’t work! They promise to help you get on top of fleshly sins. They don’t work, because they don’t deal with the root. They don’t deal with the cause. They deal perhaps with symptoms. They deal superficially with the sin problem, but they don’t really deal with the purging of the fleshly appetite. It doesn’t work. Asceticism doesn’t work, because the ascetic misdiagnosises the sin problem.
Over against this, Paul reminds us of the importance of our being obedient to the authority of Scripture only. When people come and feed us with ethical commands which do not come from the word, and they say, “You must do this if you are going to be a good Christian.” We must be like the Bereans, and when we don’t find it in the Book, we say, “No, this is not the teaching of the Lord’s word. I am a servant of the Lord, and only the Lord gives me the commands by which I am to walk in the Christian life.”
All these things, my friends, all these warnings remind us of the importance of our commitment to biblical worship and biblical Christianity. When we stray from the word which is the way by which God directs His people, we stray into dangerous ground. There are those here today who do not believe in Christ. I can say to you, by the authority of God, that you must come to Christ because there is no spiritual blessing outside of Him. Christ alone mediates. There is no other mediator, and if you would find shelter you will only find it in Christ. Come to Him today. Trust Him; receive Him by faith. Acknowledge Him as your Lord. Confess Him to be God’s Messiah. Embrace Him and trust Him and rest on Him for your salvation, and you will be saved. But you will be saved in Him and no other.
And if you are coming as a believer today, let me tell you to be diligent in guarding against compromising Christ’s sufficiency, Christ’s sole-mediation. Isn’t it interesting that over and over in this passage, Paul gives warnings against people who come along and tell you the secret to spiritual growth is learning this new teaching, this new practice, which you never heard about in the gospel before, but which I am going to reveal to you today. And if you’ll just learn this or do this, then you’ll grow. Whereas the apostle Paul says, “That’s not the secret to spiritual growth at all. The secret of spiritual growth is remaining and embracing the old gospel and growing in it more consistently in your Christian walk.” The secret is not some new secret teaching. It’s the old gospel which Paul preached and Peter preached which the Lord Himself lived and died for in proclaiming His kingdom. That is where blessing and fullness are found. Guard against anything which compromises that in its purity and power.
May the Lord bless you for it. Let’s pray.
Our heavenly Father, we are evangelical Protestants, and we claim to believe in Christ alone. We speak of believing Christ is our only mediator, and yet we often contradict that in the way we think and the way we live. Protect us from a compromise of the sole-sufficiency of Christ. For we know that it will mean the ruin of our souls. And build us up in Him alone in whom is stored all the fullness of God’s blessing. We give You all the praise and all the glory for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.