Is Mere Christianity Enough?, Colossians 2:8-19

Are we holy, really? Are we godly and pious and spiritual, really? That pig roast get-together we enjoyed yesterday at the Claridge place, all that feasting and laughing and fun… many throughout history would look at that kind of thing as a sure sign that we’re actually worldly and too indulgent of our flesh to be really holy.

Toward the end of the 2nd century into the 3rd century there were a number of Christians who out of their love and devotion to God left civilization to go live in caves in the desert near the Red Sea in solitude, celibacy and poverty and just spend much of their time communing with God in prayer. In the middle ages for their relationship with God there were many who devoted themselves to lives of poverty, celibacy, self-flagellation, fasting, sleep deprivation and other bodily afflictions. St. Francis of Assisi around 1200 A.D. taught, “I have no greater enemy than my body.” He argued “We should feel hatred towards our body for its vices and sinning!” He called the body “brother donkey” and said that it “should be weighed down by hard work, often scourged with the whip, and nourished with poor fodder.” St. Dominic around the same time period would treat his body like that as well, but also three times every night he would whip himself with an iron chain: once for himself, once for the sinners in the world, and one for the sinners that he believed were suffering in purgatory. There were a number of women in the middle ages who starved themselves sometimes to the point of death in the name of God. St. Catherine of Siena (1300s) is one of the best known.  She would not only starve herself, but sometimes also force herself to vomit by painfully inserting plant stems or branches down her throat. She would proclaim before she did it, “And now we will deliver retribution to this most wretched sinner!” and she’d shove the branch down. She eventually died of thirst, following an ascetic trial she put herself through. In the Philippines every year on Good Friday there are some very devoted individuals who, because of their faith in Jesus and for their relationship with Him, will literally have nails driven through their hands and feet into a cross and they will be stood up to hang for a little bit. And some out of their love for God have crawled on their bloody hands and knees for miles and miles to a cathedral for worship.

Have you done anything like that for God? Do we have too much fun? Do we live too comfortably? Do we eat too well? Do we indulge our flesh too much to be holy and spiritual people?

Even the Mormons seem to indulge less than we do. They abstain from coffee and tea and cola. Many of us drink several cups a day of that kind of stuff. Think of the Muslim religion. The women wear the Burka things whenever they’re out in public, even if it’s 110 degrees out, they’re covered from head to toe. They wear no makeup or perfume in public. What devotion! What commitment to not be a cause of stumbling to men! And at least 5 times a day everyday, at dawn, noon, mid afternoon, sunset and at night they go to their knees facing Mecca and say prayers. I saw a Muslim woman in the Denver airport one time. It was the time of day for a prayer, and there in the airport, unashamed of who was watching her, she went to her knees and did her thing. Do you go to your knees at least five times a day for God? Are we doing enough? Many devoted Hindus live on a strictly vegetarian diet. Some eat only one meal a day, not because they have to, but they choose to for their relationship with deity. Some Hindu Sadhus go live in solitary places, in caves, in deserted temples, in the jungle, or in the forest, eating just leaves, fruits, roots, and whatever grows wild. Others live in monastic communities. Some abandon all clothing. Others wear only a scanty loin cloth… seeking to escape all worldly pleasures and just be wholly focused on God. The Jews and the Seventh Day Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists are convinced that observance of the Sabbath is something we need to do, that it’s in the top ten things we need to do, that we need to give our Saturdays to rest and to spiritual enrichment. And they can quote Bible in support of their conviction. And the Jews are absolutely convinced that circumcision is still an essential mark of God’s people today, and that God never intended us to be eat things like pork and catfish and shellfish. And the meat we can eat has to come from animals that are slaughtered in the right way. And again, they can site some Bible for that.

Are we really close with God? Are we missing something? Are we doing enough? Is there something we’re not doing that we need to be doing?

Let’s turn in our Bibles to Colossians 2. The Colossian Christians we’re asking themselves those questions. There were some folks who had come into the Colossian church or at least had interaction with some of the Christians throughout the week and were arguing persuasively that “You guys have been deceived into thinking that you are God’s holy people. There are other practices that are crucially important to a relationship with God that you are not doing.” They were hearing persuasive arguments that circumcision, eating Kosher, observance of the Jewish annual festivals, new moons and the Sabbath day as commanded in the Law of Moses are vital. And they were hearing persuasive arguments that self-abasement and severe treatment of the body and the worship of angels is also very important. And the people who were telling them these things looked very holy, very pious and spiritual. And so they started to question, “Am I okay, really? Am I doing enough? Am I missing something?”

We’re going to look here in Colossians 2 at a big chunk of Paul’s response to the situation, 2:8-19.

In v8 Paul expresses his…

Main concern (v8)

v8, “See to it that no one takes you captive…” Or it could be “kidnaps you.” Remember the exhortation in 2:6, “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” In Christ is where we are to walk about, that’s where we are to live. But there is a very real danger of being taken away as a captive from being in Christ to being outside of Christ.

How could someone take us off as a captive? It is by means of teaching. And Paul describes the sort of teachings that can take us captive with 5 descriptions.

Philosophy – The word referred to any human speculative reasoning about God, self, the world, salvation. It would refer to all the “isms” that are out there today; like humanism, relativism, naturalism, pantheism, Darwinism, existentialism. Those are all philosophies. Those are all man’s speculative reasonings about things. People, by those sorts of teachings, can take us captive out of Christ.

Empty deception – stuff that sounds reasonable, sounds logical, sounds smart. Looks good from a human perspective. But it’s a lie. And it’s empty; it contains nothing of value to us.

According to the tradition of men – Trace back the origin of the belief or practice. Where did we get the idea that we should do this or believe this? If it originated in the minds of men, then it is not important to our relationship with God.

According to the elementary principles of the world – There’s a lot of debate in the scholarly world about what exactly Paul means by that phrase. We’re not going to take the time to look at all the different ways it’s interpreted. I’ll just explain my understanding and you can look into it further on your own in if you want to. In Paul’s day the word in the Greek text translated “elementary principles” was most often used to refer to the basic components of the physical universe; land, water, air, fire, material stuff, the sun, moon and stars, and even to refer to days and nights, the basic components our physical world. You see the same Greek term in II Peter 3:10, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat…” In both Judaism and pagan religions people were enslaved to rules and laws that had do simply with the basic and material components of the world. There were things not to touch, not to taste, not to handle. There were things to do when the moon was a certain way and things to do on certain days of the year. And those kind of rules that merely pertain to food and drink and material things and certain days I think are what Paul is talking about. There are 2 passages that convince me that that’s what Paul means by this phrase. The first is Galatians 4:9-11, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things [or “elementary principles,” same term in the Greek text], to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years. 11 I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.” Paul’s writing to Gentile Christians there who are being persuaded by some false teachers that they need to follow the Law of Moses in order to be saved, which contains rules about what to do and not do on certain days of the week and of the month and of the year. By submitting to those rules these Christians were enslaving themselves again to elementary principles, like they were enslaved to in pagan religions before they became Christians. And then look Colossians 2:20-21, “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, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” Similar to the problem among the Galatian Christians. Decrees like “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” are elementary principles, they are rules that just have to do with the material components of our world. And they are rules characteristic of Judaism and pagan religions, religions that do not make us right with God. So watch out for teachings containing dietary regulations, and about clean and unclean things, and that you must do or not do certain things on certain particular days.

And then the last description Paul gives of teaching to watch out for is teaching that is not according to Christ. That’s the big summary. To be in Christ we must see Christ as totally sufficient to take care of us as He is and we must totally trust Him. But if we’re listening to stuff that has not come from Christ and thinking this other stuff is essential to a relationship with God, then we are in essence saying that Christ is not enough, I need Christ plus, and we’re actually saying that Christ is not completely trustworthy, because Christ promises we’re saved simply following the path that He’s laid out for us. And it can severe us from Christ. It happened to some of the Galatian Christians. Galatians 5:4 Paul told them, “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” Religious beliefs and practices that do not come from Christ are not only unnecessary to a relationship God, but they can severe us from Christ and cost us a relationship with God, if they are beliefs or practices that imply that Jesus is not totally sufficient.

So there’s Paul’s main concern. And then v9-13 has to do with…

What we have in Christ (v9-13)

v9, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form“. The word “deity’ there, your version might translate “Godhead.” It could be Godhood or Godness or divinity. It is the quality of being God. The qualities and attributes that make up who God is is deity. Paul is saying that all that God is lives in Christ in bodily form. And the fact that it’s in the present tense makes it sound to me like Christ still has a body. It’s a glorified body, but it’s a body. His earthly mortal body when He left this earth was transformed into a glorious immortal body. The same thing that will one day happen to us. Phil 3:20-21, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory…” And in His glorified body right now is the fullness of all that God is. There is nothing of God that is not in Jesus. Now, all religious teachings and practices have to do with trying to be right with deity. Well, if Christ has the fullness of deity, and we’re right with Christ, then we don’t need any other religious belief or practice. We are right with the fullness of deity if we are right with Christ. We don’t need to do anything other than just what Christ tells us we need to do.

v10a, “and in Him you have been made complete” You lack nothing if you are in Christ.

v10b, “and He is the head over all rule and authority.” And Paul especially has in mind rulers and authorities in the spirit realm, which these Colossians were being told that they need to be concerned about. They were being told they need be concerned about having the favor of powerful angels and maybe the spirits of the ancestors, that these  spiritual powers can really effect what happens to us, and maybe that they need to be concerned about getting some of them to protect us from others of them. But the fact that Christ is the head over all rule and authority means you don’t need to worry about placating all these other spiritual powers. Christ determines what every ruler and authority even in the spirit realm can and cannot do. Christ controls them. If you’re right with Christ, Christ will handle the spirit beings in a way for your good.

v11-13 Paul speaks of how the Colossian Christians have already been circumcised. Why? I think because some are telling them that you’ve got to be circumcised to be right with God. So Paul says you’re already circumcised. “in Him [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.” As physical circumcision was a requirement to be the old covenant relationship with God, here is the parallel in the new covenant. It’s not the cutting away of skin. It is the cutting away of sin. It’s the cutting away of sin out of our lives and the cutting away of sin off our account before God. How does it happen? He mentions here 3 things involved on our part. #1 it involves faith in the working of God who raised Christ from the dead. We must trust that God really did raise Jesus from the dead and He can raise us from our spiritual death in sin to spiritual life in a right relationship with Him. And that He will do that as He promised when we meet His conditions. Secondly, our circumcision involves the removal of the body of the flesh. And I don’t think that means disposing of your physical body. He means no longer letting our body be ruled by the fleshly nature. We decide that our body now belongs to Christ. This body is now going to do the will of Christ. And then thirdly, our circumcision involves baptism. And there is a mystical uniting with Christ that takes place in baptism, as long as it’s accompanied with faith in the working of God and a surrendering of our body to the Lord. If so, then when we are buried in the waters of baptism we are united with Christ. We become with Him in that burial. And we are raised up with Him. And when we are united with Christ, then what Christ has, His status, His righteousness, His relationship with the Father, His inheritance, that’s ours. So don’t worry about physical circumcision. Your coming to faith and repentance and baptism into Christ means everything and far more than physical circumcision ever meant to a Jew.

v14-15 are about…

What does not have authority over us (v14-15)

v14, “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Scholars are divided about what Paul means here by this “certificate of debt.” Some see this as a figurative list of all our sins, a figurative list of all the debts that we have accrued before God by sinning, and that it’s painting a cool picture of what Christ did for us. He canceled our debt note. He nailed it to the cross and did away with it. But the other interpretation that I learn towards is that Paul is talking here about the Law that God gave the Jewish people through Moses. It was like a certificate of debt in the sense that all of its rules and regulations, all of its thou shall’s and thou shall not’s showed the Jewish people what they owed God. And at the death of Christ that Law was made void, no longer binding on people. Here’s a few reasons why I lean toward that interpretation. First of all, you notice the word “decrees,” “the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us“. Decrees are laws or commandments. Look down at 2:20 again where you find the word “decrees” again, “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!’” This certificate of debt consists of decrees, commands, laws. Also, I think it’s talking about the Mosaic Law because this passage is surrounded by statements about elements of the Mosaic Law not being binding us. v11-12 said we don’t need to be circumcised. v16 is going to say we need to worry about the dietary regulations or festivals or new moon or Sabbath day, all elements of the Law of Moses. And another reason I think it’s talking about the Mosaic Law is the similar language in Ephesians 2:15, which is definitely talking about the Mosaic Law. (Many passages in Colossians and Ephesians are very similar.) Ephesians 2:14-15 says that Christ “is our peace, who made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances [or decrees, same word in Colossians 2:14], so that in Himself He might make the two [that is Jews and Gentiles] into one new man, thus establishing peace.” And Colossians 2:14 uses some of that same language. I think he’s talking about the same thing. Since the death of Christ the Law of Moses has been abolished. It no longer has authority. Our authority today is simply Christ.

And v15 makes the point that no other spiritual being has authority over us. v15, “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.” Again, when he says “rulers and authorities” he’s talking about spiritual beings. The work of Christ disarmed them. It was a triumph over them. I think Paul is talking about how the redemptive work of Christ has taken away from Satan and his forces any claim on our souls. We have a symbolic picture of this in Revelation 12. In Revelation 12 there is the pregnant woman who represents the people of God. She’s about to give birth to a son, a male child, it says, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. He’s the Messiah, the Christ. And there’s this great red dragon who represents Satan. And the Dragon is waiting for the woman to give birth so that he can devour the Child. Well, the woman gives birth, but before the dragon can devour Him, He’s caught up to God and to His throne. It’s brief picture of the birth and life of Jesus and the completion of His redemptive work and then His ascension back to heaven. And then it pictures this war in heaven, and Michael and his angels throw down out of heaven the great dragon and his angels. And then Revelation 12:10 says, “Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now [that is now that Christ has completed His redemptive work, now] the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.” It’s a picture of the fact that after Christ completed His work on earth, Satan and his angels no longer had any place to accuse us before God. Satan had no longer any claim on our souls. Before Christ’s work on earth, Satan could say, “God, James is a sinner big time and you know it. You can’t have James in heaven with you. You cannot be just and righteous and let all of his sins go unpunished. He belongs to me.” But after the atoning work of Christ was done Satan could no longer say that. Satan and his angels lost all claim on our souls. We don’t need to worry about doing things to gain protection from Satan and from the demons. They’ve been disarmed. We’re safe from them.

So then in Colossians 2 Paul warns about…

Specific unnecessary religious practices (v16-19)

v16, “Therefore” because Christ has all authority and in Him you have all you need and because neither the Law of Moses nor any other spirit being has authority over you, “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” Don’t be bothered by anybody telling you that you can’t be a child of God because you eat bacon or you work on Saturday or you don’t celebrate Passover or because of you don’t follow some other elementary principle of the Law of Moses.

v17, “things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” Like imagine you’re in a house and somebody is coming down the hall way around the corner. And you can’t see down the hallway. You can’t see who is coming. But on the floor and wall in front of you you can see the shadow of the one who is coming. When all you have is the shadow, then you look at the shadow to get an idea of whose coming and what you need to do to prepare to encounter whoever is coming. But then when the actual person comes around the corner and is before you, then you don’t pay attention to the shadow anymore, because you have the reality. Well, the Law of Moses was like a shadow of God’s plan of salvation, and Christ is the substance, the reality that cast the shadow. And so now that we have Christ, the reality that the OT Law foreshadowed, let’s not get our guidance from the shadow, let’s get it from the reality. Let’s just listen and follow Jesus, he’s saying.

v18, “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement…” That’s that asceticism stuff, severe treatment of the body. Don’t listen to anybody who tells you you can’t be right with God because you wear clothes that are too comfortable and your bed is too comfortable and you eat too well and things like that. Now, we should be willing to forgo those nice things if Christ were to ask us to. We must have that kind of commitment to the Lord. But Christ has not told us that there is any value to just hurting ourselves or making ourselves uncomfortable. Rather Christ has told us this through Paul. I Timothy 4:4 in a context about men forbidding marriage and advocating abstaining from foods, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude.” It’s okay to enjoy everything God has made, as long as you’re thankful for it.  I Timothy 6:17, “God… richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.” For us to enjoy them is the purpose for which God has supplied us with all the good things of this earth. And so don’t listen to those advocating self-abasement.

And Paul tells them not to listen to anybody who tells them that they need to worship angels.

And Paul says he knows how some of these teachers in Colossae are substantiating their claims that asceticism and worship of angels are important. He says they take their stand on visions that they have seen. Did you know all through history false teachers have deceived people by claiming to have received visions? There’s an account I Kings 13 about a young prophet and a old prophet. And God told the young prophet, “Don’t eat or drink in the northern kingdom of Israel. Just come straight back to the land of Judah.” The old prophet came and invited him over for lunch. And the young prophet said, “I can’t. God told me not to eat or drink in this place. ” And the old prophet said, “Listen, I’m a prophet like you and an angel came to me and spoke to me by the word of the Lord saying that I’m to bring you back to my house that you might eat and drink.” But the text says he lied to him. But the young prophet believed the lie and disobeyed God by going to have lunch where God told him not to have lunch. And God sent a lion to kill that young prophet on the way home to teach us the lesson that we don’t disregard what He says for something somebody else says just because that person claims to have had a vision. Claiming to have received visions is how Muhammad substantiated his claims. It’s how Jospeh Smith, the founder of the Mormons, substantiated his claims. It’s how Ellen White, the founder of the Seventh Day Adventist, substantiated her claims. It’s how Oral Roberts did it. And televangelists still do it sometimes today.

Paul says of these characters in Colossae who are telling the Christians that they need to do all these other things in addition to following Christ, they are inflated, puffed up with pride, without cause by their fleshly minds and not holding fast to the head, that’s Christ, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. How does true spiritual growth happen? How do we become more and more pleasing to God? Is it by observing the Mosaic Law? Is it by not eating certain foods? It is by beating our bodies? No. It’s simply by holding fast to Christ like a member of a body to its head. Which means that you are simply listening and following Christ, as a member of a body listens and follows the head. And that will have you connected with other Christians like fellow members of a body and taking care of each other. And in that relationship with Christ and His people, Christ will give you all the nourishment and help you need for growth and often it will come to you through your fellow members. But it’s simply by being a member of the body of Christ that you grow into everything God wants you to be. No religious practice or ritual that has not come to us from Christ is going to be of any value to spiritual growth and our relationship with God.

– James Williams

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