Having been away, that means that we've been away from our regular course of studies in Paul's letter to the Colossians and so we're returning there this morning. So please take a Bible in hand and turn to Colossians chapter 2. Let me remind you briefly of where you are – give you some background and context in case, after a few weeks away, you need the reminder. In verse 6 of chapter 2, Paul begins a section where he really wants to put the doctrine of the believer's union with Christ front and center. He wants to show us that because of our union with Jesus, by grace through faith, we have the fullness, we have access to God; we have means of growth and the Lord is at work in our lives in union with Jesus Christ. But of course, there were false teachers who were penetrating the Colossian fellowship with their message and Paul calls it, if you look in verse 8, "philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world." So this alternative message that was being preached at Colossae, it's based only on human tradition and behind that, there are demonic powers seeking to lead God's people astray.
But the truth is, the fullness of what you need, verses 9 and 10, is in Jesus Christ. You find it in Christ. In verses 11 and 12, as we saw a few weeks ago, it seems part of the false teaching was an insistence on the need for circumcision. To really follow Jesus, they said you need to be circumcised. But Paul said, “No, no. You have the reality that circumcision speaks about if you have Jesus Christ. You don’t need circumcision; you need Him.” In fact, he goes on to say, if you are one with Jesus you are one with Him in His death and resurrection. Your old life is gone. You have a new life in Him now. And He has triumphed over the rulers and authorities, the demonic powers that seek to lead us astray. He’s won the victory over them, making a public spectacle of them by triumphing over them in the cross.
And in our passage this morning, verses 16 through 19, Paul is continuing to respond to the message of the false teachers. Their legalism, in particular, is the focus of his concern that manifests itself as we’re going to see in two ways – both in a concern for ceremonial externals and for spiritual experiences. But both of these translate into a kind of legalism in the life of the Colossian church and Paul is responding to that in verses 16 to 19. Before we read the passage together, however, and begin to unpack some of that, let me invite you to bow your heads with me as we turn to God and ask Him for His help. Let’s pray together.
Lord, our hearts are unruly things. They wander off, they are distracted, they are attracted by lies, by the empty trinkets of the world, by the joys of sin that are fleeting and temporary and counterfeit. So now as we bow before You with Your Word open, we ask You to wield the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God in our hearts, that You would so work to put sin to death in our hearts and cause spiritual graces to ripen in our lives. Draw us back to Jesus and enable us to hold fast to the Head, which is Christ. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
Colossians 2 at the sixteenth verse. This is the Word of God:
“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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 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, 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.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
You saw there in verses 19 and 20 Paul uses the metaphor of a body. Christ is the Head, the church is the body. He is concerned about the health of the body. And as I was preparing for the message this morning I thought that might be a helpful way, if we would extend Paul’s metaphor a little, to come at the teaching of these verses. Paul’s concern is for the health of the body, so he begins by diagnosing the spiritual disease that is plaguing the body in Colossae. There’s a virus, as it were, a spiritual virus that has begun to infect their fellowship. And if we’re going to deal with it, he wants us to understand the nature of the disease. We want a correct diagnosis. And then he wants to turn to a treatment plan to think about the cure.
So if you look at verse 16, you'll see one of the presenting symptoms of this spiritual disease at the church in Colossae. The false teachers and those who follow them were passing judgment on some. "Let no one pass judgment on you." That's what was happening. And so Paul has to urge them not to allow that to happen. And then in verse 18, "Let no one disqualify you." So their judgmentalism was going so far as to disqualify some from the fellowship, to rule individuals out. The word originally had reference to the work of an umpire or a referee who would adjudicate and rule on what was and was not out of bounds. Imagine a referee on a football field – I can't imagine what brought that illustration to mind today! But anyway, a referee on a football field, who, the play on the field has been challenged and he has to make a ruling. Will the play on the field stand or not? That's what's happening actually at Colossae. These false teachers were so committed to their message, they were making rulings about who belonged and who did not and it was beginning to tear at the fabric of the Colossian fellowship.
And do notice, by the way, Paul says we should not simply wring our hands and shrug our shoulders and look the other way when we see judgmentalism resulting in this kind of division and tension within a fellowship. He says, “Let no one pass judgment. Let no one disqualify you.” So there’s some action to be taken. This is not simply to be tolerated or excused or given a pass. So how do we do that? That’s what this passage is all about. How do you deal with these presenting symptoms?
The Mutations of Legalism
Step one, Paul says, is understand the disease. You’ve got to understand the disease. Why are they so judgmental? What is it that makes them pass judgment like this? And here, I want to talk about what I’ll call the two mutations of legalism in our passage – like a virus, you know, a pathogen that’s mutating. There are two mutations of this disease. Two mutations of legalism in the passage. The first of them you’ll see in verse 16. The reason they’re passing judgment, the grounds of their judgment – look at it, verse 16. “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food or drink or with regard to a festival, a new moon, or a sabbath.” So apparently the false teachers in Colossae are adopting Old Testament dietary and calendar regulations just like they were insisting on circumcision, remember, back in verses 11 and 12. So we’ll call these guys the rule keepers. That’s the first mutation of legalism – the rule keepers. They’re focused on careful conformity to rigorous codes of external religious conduct. That’s what really marks you out, you see, as holy in their book.
The Rule Keepers
They have rules about food and drink, Paul says. Scholars point out that really the only regulations in the Old Testament related to drink in particular came in conjunction with Nazarite vows. Those were unusual vows in exceptional circumstances a Jewish person could make that would impose upon them additional restrictions on their freedoms. And it’s quite possible that the Colossian false teachers were going above and beyond as it were of unusually rigorous, extraordinarily narrow restrictions, almost like Nazarite requirements for the rank and file members of the local church. They had rules about food and drink.
They also had rules about holy days – the festivals, new moon and sabbaths. That's a reference to the Jewish liturgical calendar. Paul isn't really speaking here about the Sabbath Day, whether we are to keep one whole day in seven for works of worship, necessity, mercy and rest. That's the clear teaching of the whole Bible. That's not Paul's concern here. His concern, rather, is with a pattern and trajectory of life that was characteristic of the false teachers. They were saying, "No, your observance of the liturgical calendar, your observance of dietary regulations, that's what identifies you as a really serious follower of Jesus." And let's be fair to them as far as we can. This instinct was probably motivated, at least to some extent, by a laudable desire to be obedient, to be rigorous, to be careful and faithful, to do everything that God has commanded. And that's an attitude we ought all to embrace. But they have completely missed where real purity, real holiness, real spiritual health, and vitality comes from. Haven't they? They think it comes from rigor in observing ceremonial formalities and so they want to impose the strictest laws to govern every outward detail of life – food and drink, days and weeks and months. And then, then you'll be holy! You see? They're rule keepers. That's the first mutation of spiritual legalism.
The Experience Seeker
There’s another. If you look down at verse 18, the second mutation of legalism is the experience seeker. So the rule keeper; now the experience seeker. “Let no one disqualify you,” verse 18, “insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions.” Legalism in Colossae involved a strictness about obeying ceremonies, the Mosaic ceremonies. But it also seems to have involved the pursuit of spiritual experience. They are concerned not just about the exacting observance of ritual codes. More than that, they thought real spiritual fullness required mysticism. The asceticism of extreme self-denial, Paul says, goes along with the worship of angels. Do you see that in the text? Now that might mean that angels were the object of their worship – they were worshipping angels. More likely, some scholars indicate that they were boasting that their worship was the worship angels engaged in. Unlike, you know, the rest of us with our mundane worship, their worship penetrated the veil. There’s was angelic in character. When they worship, they get into heaven. Not only do they get into heaven, they actually claim heaven comes down to them. They have a direct line. They were claiming direct, special revelation. They were boasting about visions that they were having.
So their boasts were all designed to impress with the power and the drama of spectacular spiritual experience. We’ve probably met people like this or heard people like this who are always talking about some extraordinary encounter with the supernatural or some vision they had and how close they feel to God. “You really ought to join us for our next praise and worship night. The last one was spectacular! God really showed up!” And every week there’s another piece of spiritual pyrotechnics and it leaves us feeling like a dud. Doesn’t it? Like a real dud; a second-class Christian.
But look at the text. Paul is having none of it. He's brutal, isn't he, in exposing what's really going on in these people's lives. Verse 19, this kind of person, he says, "is puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind." Look, it may seem impressive, spiritual even, but it's pride pure and simple. They themselves are the focus of their constant talk about spiritual experiences. The word, by the way, "sensuous mind," is really "mind of the flesh." It may seem like they have a spiritual mind, but actually, all they have is a mind of the flesh, a mind governed and directed by their sinful propensities.
One of the marks of real godliness, of authentic spirituality, is modesty. Modesty about our intimacy with God. Modesty about our spiritual experiences, in case, as we talk about them, we've carelessly given the impression that "My experiences ought to be the rule for anyone else." Look, don't get me wrong. I believe in Christian experience. I believe in a warm, felt fellowship with the Father in Christ by the Holy Spirit through the ordinary means of grace – the Word and the sacraments and prayer. I believe in Christian experience. I want every believer to enjoy sweet communion with the living God. But those who really enjoy fellowship with God, by the Holy Spirit, through the Word, are marked by a reticence, by a carefulness about how they speak of it so as to avoid putting the spotlight on themselves, you see, giving the impression that they're really spiritual mature because of their experiences. All our attention should be fixed elsewhere. It should be fixed on the Lord Jesus Christ.
So there are two mutations of the same spiritual virus at Colossae. Do you see them? The rule keeper thinks he is accepted before God because He's scrupulous in spiritual behavior. He does it just right. But anyone who doesn't join him in doing it just right, which is to say doing it his way, had better watch out. And then there's the experience seeker who knows that God is on his team because of the ecstasy he always seems to be able to conjure up on demand and the dramatic experiences he thinks should define the normal Christian life. But then of course if you don't feel what he feels, you must be a spiritual failure. They're actually both form of legalism. Aren't they? Do you see that? Both are using methods God has not prescribed to define and to limit who belongs and who does not. And Paul wants the Colossians and he wants us to see just how ugly these things really are so that we can avoid being taken in by them. They may look dramatic. They may look attractive, impressive, powerful, but they're counterfeit, they're dangerous, they're pathogens. It's poison. It's a virus. And it will make the body sick.
The Treatment Plan
Well, what do we do about it? What's the treatment plan? How do we deal with these two mutations of legalism? With some differences of nuance that we're going to pick up in a moment, Paul essentially says the treatment plan is the same in both cases. Look at the passage. To the rule keepers who think the essence of godliness is bound up with observing Old Testament ceremonial, he says. Verse 17, these are a shadow of the things to come; the substance is Christ. It belongs to Christ. It's found in Christ. To the experience seekers, those who think that the real mark of piety is ecstasy, he says in verse 19, you're not holding fast to the Head, meaning Christ.
So what’s the true mark of spiritual authenticity? It’s not doing external things just right, and neither can it be identified with a long litany of encounters with the supernatural, however dramatic they might be. The mark of spiritual authenticity, the great evidence of health in your Christian life and in our church, is the centrality of Jesus Christ in our life, in our church. Jesus must be the focal point. Christ, the source of life. Christ, the fountain from which we drink living water. Christ, the goal and object of all our praise. Christ, who is all in all.
Substance is Christ
So look at Paul’s reply to the rule keepers in verse 17 first. In some ways, he’s simply echoing the counsel he gave them back in verses 11 and 12 when he responded to their insistence on circumcision. You see how he argues in verse 17? He’s saying these are old covenant patterns – these dietary restrictions, these calendar regulations. They were designed to point you to Jesus. The substance is in Christ. He’s the real thing. The dietary laws restricting food and drink, they were designed to point to Christ who is bread from heaven and water from the rock. The religious calendar, festivals and new moons and sabbaths, were designed to point to Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the same yesterday, today and forever in whose hands are all our times.
Suppose I owed you money, a vast sum of money, a fortune of money, and we have a contract drawn up, a legally binding document properly notarized outlining the terms and conditions of the loan that you have made to me. There's my signature right on the front. And that would be a precious document. Wouldn't it? You would be wise to guard it and keep it safe. It's for an extravagant sum of money that is owed to you and so you need to keep a hold of that document and cherish it and it's going to be precious to you and rightly so. But now suppose I were to come to you with a huge pile of cash. It's the repayment of the loan with interest. It's everything I owe you and then some. Here it is! And you say, "No, thanks. I would much rather hold onto my precious promissory note. I have a promissory note. It's been so near and dear to me for so long. I'd rather hold onto my promissory note than take the cash." It's a ridiculous scenario. Paul is saying to the Colossians, "Why are you messing around with food laws and new moon festivals? They're just promissory notes. Christ is riches beyond what they can even thoroughly depict. You get more in Jesus even than you could possibly anticipate in the promises. The reality surpasses the promises. These are just promissory notes. Why are you settling for them when you can have Him? He's the real thing! He's the one you need."
Here is Paul's point. The Colossians were running around trying to be as rigorous as they can be, implementing Old Testament ceremonial, focused on external ritual observances, formalities, not realizing that external formalities make a terrible substitute for Jesus. They're really bad at saving sinners. And that's a message we still need to hear. Because aren't we hard-wired to slide from spiritual reality to formality, from intimacy with Jesus Christ, from honest dealing from our hearts towards going through the motions? Formality, Paul says, simply won't cut it. Even the Biblically required patterns of New Testament worship that we seek to embrace in our worship Lord's Day by Lord's Day, all of them are designed to point you to Jesus. The substance is Christ. He's the one that you need. Do you have Christ? Do you have Christ? Why are you here? What are you here for? Christ is available to you. He is on offer. He is all your heart needs. Do you have Christ?
Christ is the Head
Or look down at verse 19. The experience seekers, they are focused, aren’t they, on dramatic power encounters. “We engage in angelic worship! We have a hotline to God! We have visions! We are really spiritual!” That was their boast. But Paul says you’re not holding fast to the Head. That is, you’re not holding to Christ. Christ is the Head. The church is His body and we must hold fast to Him. Or to use the related but different language of Jesus Himself in John 15 verses 4 and 5. “Abide in Me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears fruit. For apart from Me you can do nothing.” They were all about experiences, you see, but they were not all about Jesus.
What is the center of your Christian life, the operational center? What is it that really animates your heart, that fills your mind? If it is not Jesus Christ, then this virus may well have begun to infect your life too. Paul says we must hold fast to the Head. We must abide in Christ. Abide in Christ by faith, trusting in Him. Abide in Christ, resting on His promises, His finished work on your behalf. Abide in Christ, obeying His commands. Hold fast to the Head.
Now when you do, when Jesus is the center and everything else becomes peripheral, when Christ is the center, what happens in your life or in the life of the church? What does a Christ-centered church look like? Two things very quickly and then we’re done. First, a Christ-centered life, a Christ-centered church is a place of spiritually, healthy growth. There’s spiritual growth. Verses 19 and 20, the whole body grows, Paul says, when we “hold fast to the Head, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments with a growth that is from God.” True growth is not a mechanical product of ceremonial rule keeping. You know, you do the right religious observances and therefore you get the right spiritual payoff. That’s not the picture. Neither is it to be acquainted with some soaring experience. No, Paul says it is the fruit of abiding in Christ – clinging to Christ, trusting in Christ, following and serving, delighting and adoring the Lord Jesus Christ, holding fast to the Head, clinging to Jesus leads to a growth that is from God.
True and Growing Unity
And secondly, it leads to true and growing unity, true and growing unity. You remember the product, the fruit of the legalism that has marked the false teaching at Colossae. What was it doing? It was causing the false teachers to disqualify church members, to say, “You know, you’re not welcome. You don’t belong. You don’t match up. You’re not keeping the rules and your experience does not compare to ours. You don’t belong.” It was disunity. It was division. It was schism and a fracturing of the fellowship.
What is the fruit of abiding in Christ, of clinging to Jesus? Verses 19 and 20, “hold fast to the Head, from whom” – listen – “the whole body, nourished and knit together, through its joints and ligaments grows with a growth that is from God.” The whole body, nourished and knit together. One of the marks of growing Christian maturity is that you want to be with other believers, you love them, you love their fellowship, you love their assemblies. You want to talk with them about the things of God. You love the communion of the saints, the church of Jesus Christ. You know you can’t be a Christian on your own. Isolation is not a fruit of the Spirit. Independence is not a characteristic of Christian maturity. We grow in community. We grow together, you see. Those who abide in Christ love one another. “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples – if you have love for one another.” That’s the mark of a growing church where Christ is the center. Believers who have Jesus at the center, do not pull back, they do not run away, they are not retreating, they do not content themselves with their favorite internet preacher or their favorite talking head on a television screen. “They will not forsake assembling themselves together as some are in the habit of doing, but they encourage one another and all the more as they see the great day approaching.”
So Paul puts before us two competing visions of Christianity, doesn't he? One of them was being taught by the false teachers at Colossae and it was impressive, rigorous, ascetic severe even, full of rules that you can keep. And it was boasting of deep, profound supernatural experience. "Man, these folks seem to really know God!" At least to hear them tell it, they did. But I hope you can hear clearly Paul's warning. That's the counterfeit. It's legalism. It breeds judgmentalism. It leads to division. It's not the real thing. It's poison. It's a virus.
And then there’s another vision of the Christian life – the one Paul is preaching. And it’s simple and ordinary. It’s one of the reasons why the counterfeit is always so very attractive, because the real thing is simple and ordinary. It’s simple and ordinary, not focused on self at all – focused on Jesus Christ, holding fast to the Head. It knows the substance is Christ and resting on Christ. Those who follow this path, they grow with a growth that comes from God and they pursue one another. There’s deepening unity, not division.
So here’s my appeal as we close. Let’s not fall for the counterfeit. Let’s not settle for formalism instead of the real thing. Let’s not pursue more experience for its own sake. All that will do is drive us deeper and deeper into ourselves. No, let us keep our eyes on Jesus Christ. Let’s pursue knowing Him, trusting Him, loving Him and serving Him. Let Him be the substance of our religion. “In Christ alone” – we love to sing this, don’t we? “In Christ alone, my hope is found. He is my light, my strength, my song.” Is He? Are those just words? Is He? Christ alone. Is He the heartbeat of your faith? If you have drifted from Christ at the center, the virus about which Paul is warning us has begun, perhaps, to infect your spiritual life. It’s time to return to the cure, to the treatment plan, to repent of the self-centeredness of every counterfeit available and turn back to Jesus Christ alone. “Hold fast to the Head,” he says. Life and growth, unity – it all comes from Him. May the Lord bless His Word to us. Let’s pray together.
Father, thank You so much for Your Word to us. Help us, please, not to be dazzled by the extraordinary nor to be swept away by an unusually stringent set of rules that we know we can keep. Instead, would You help us in humility to see we need a Savior outside of ourselves? We need the Lord Jesus Christ. Help us, however mature, however far we've gone in the Christian life, never to stray from a centered focus on Jesus, His glory and greatness and grace, His finished work, His obedience and blood, His heavenly intercession. He is all our hearts need. O Lord, give Him to us and teach us to hold fast to the Head. For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.