Poor Substitutes

Click here for more messages from the book of Colossians.
Click here to return to the Sermons page.

Colossians 2:16-23

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called “Living the Christ-Centered Life,” and together we are learning how to live life with Christ at the center. A lot of people don’t understand what the Christian life is all about. They think that Christianity is all about rules and regulations, that it is nothing more than a lot of do’s and dont’s. But today’s passage in Colossians makes it clear that Christianity is not about that at all. Paul is saying, “Don’t be taken in by a lot of man-made do’s and dont’s. Christianity is not about rules – it’s about a relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s not about “dont’s” – it’s about what Christ has done.

Today we are going to look at three things that people try to put at the center instead of Christ. These are all tempting things to try and build your life around. But as we shall see, they are all poor substitutes for Christ. (Read Colossians 2:16-23)

——————————

People are always tempted to substitute something for Christ. There seems to be something in the heart of man that rebels against this idea of living life with Christ at the center. Either we think Christ is the wrong solution or we don’t think Christ is enough, but either way we end up putting something else at the center instead of Christ. But there are no good substitutes for Christ. Everything you need to live the Christian life is found in him.

It’s been said that bad theology leads to bad practice. And that is never more true than when we are talking about Christ and his place in the Christian life. Back in Colossians 2:8 Paul warned the Colossians about a deceptive philosophy that was threatening their life with Christ. Now we get a more detailed description of what this false teaching at Colosse was all about. And through it all, Paul’s message is clear. Don’t substitute anything for Christ! Christ is central, and anything you try and substitute for him is a poor substitute.

There are three main issues that Paul addresses in our passage. First he addresses the problem of legalism in verses 16-17. Then he addresses the problem of mysticism in verses 18-19. And then finally he addresses the problem of asceticism in verses 20-23. So let’s take a look at each of these three in turn.

I. Fighting legalism – Don’t let anyone judge you (16-17)

First of all Paul talks about fighting legalism. Legalism is relying on religious rules for acceptance by God instead of what Christ has done for you at the cross. The danger with legalism is that people judge each other over things that no longer even apply. And so Paul gives the warning here: “Don’t let anyone judge you!”

   A. Relying on religious rules for acceptance by God
      – Leviticus 23; Mark 7:14-15; Romans 14:5,17

Once again, legalism is relying on religious rules for acceptance by God instead of what Christ has done for you at the cross. Look at verse 16: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (Colossians 2:16)

The Colossians were allowing the false teachers to judge them, to intimidate them, to make them feel inferior because they were not observing the Jewish ceremonial law. However, as we saw last week, Christ has freed us from the power of the law to condemn and Christ has fulfilled all aspects of the ceremonial law. The power of the law has been cancelled, and you cannot be judged by a law that no longer exists for you. Paul is saying don’t let someone question your spirituality on the basis of religious rules rather than Christ.

Legalism always tries to add to the work of Christ. For the legalist, Christ’s work on the cross is never enough, and so instead of faith in Christ alone, it is always Christ plus works. But as soon as you add works into the picture as a means of acceptance by God, it is no longer by faith alone.

      – examples: special diet and special days

Paul gives two examples of specific works that the false teachers were trying to add to the work of Christ: a special diet and the observance of special days.

Let’s talk about the special diet first. When Paul says, “Don’t let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink,” he is talking about the ceremonial laws in the Old Testament, laws that had to do with clean or unclean animals, fasting or not fasting, rules and regulations about wine for priests and Nazirites, rules and regulations about drinking from an unclean vessel. But Jesus taught the people that the dietary laws of the Old Testament no longer applied. Speaking of foods he said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’” (Mark 7:14-15) And we read in Romans 14: 17 that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)

And then back to Colossians 2:16, Paul says, “Don’t let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (Colossians 2:16) These were the special days that the false teachers were observing. “Religious festival” probably refers to the annual Jewish festivals such as Passover, Firstfruits, Pentecost (Feast of Weeks), the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles (all found in Lev 23). The pagans also observed sacred days. The New Moon celebration was a monthly festival where sacrifices were offered at the new moon, or the first day of the month. (see Numbers 10:10; 28:11-14) And then the Sabbath day would refer to the weekly Sabbath, although perhaps Paul has the annual Sabbath day in mind also. (see Leviticus 25:1-3)

At this time in history the Jews and the Christians were already observing separate days for worship. The Jews worshiped on Saturday, the Sabbath, while Christians worshiped on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. We read in Romans 14:5 “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5)
Now there’s nothing wrong with eating special foods or observing special days, but we must understand that these are not requirements for any believer. And so Paul says don’t let anyone judge you according to what you eat or drink or with regard to special days.

   B. The problem: only shadows of the things that were to come
      – Hebrews 9:10, 10:1

The problem with these things is that they were only shadows of the things that were to come. Look at verse 17: “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:17) We read something similar in Hebrews 10:1: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves.” (Hebrews 10:1)

A shadow has no reality in and of itself. It only points to the reality of something else. In the same way those things pertaining to the Old Testament ceremonial law had no substance in themselves but only as they related to the coming of Christ.

   C. The solution: Focus on the reality which is found in Christ.
      – John 6:41; 1 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 4:1-11

And so what is the solution to legalism? Instead of focusing on rules and regulations, focus on the reality which is found in Christ. Paul says that all these things were but shadows pointing to the fulfillment or reality which is found in Christ. And just as a shadow is absolutely dependent on the real object, so the law is absolutely dependent on Jesus Christ. So instead of focusing on ceremonial food, focus on Jesus who is the Bread of Life. (John 6:41) Instead of focusing on religious festivals, focus on Christ who is our Passover. (1 Corinthians 5:7) Instead of focusing on Sabbath days, focus on Jesus who is our eternal rest. (Hebrews 4:1-11)

A shadow is temporary, but the reality is permanent. A shadow is a poor substitute for the real thing. Just try hugging a shadow. How do you fight legalism? Focus on the reality which is found in Christ.

II. Fighting mysticism – Don’t let anyone disqualify you (18-19)

So that’s fighting legalism. Next Paul talks about fighting mysticism. And if legalism is relying on religious rules for acceptance by God instead of what Christ has done for you at the cross, mysticism is relying on religious experience for status within the church instead of finding your place in the body of Christ. The danger with mysticism is that people disqualify each other depending on whether or not they have had certain religious experiences. And so Paul gives the warning here: “Don’t let anyone disqualify you!”

   A. Relying on religious experience for status within the church
      – 1 Timothy 2:5; Matthew 4:10; Revelation 19:10

Once again, mysticism is relying on religious experience for status within the church instead of finding your place in the body of Christ. Look at verse 18 where Paul writes: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.” (Colossians 2: 18)

That word “disqualify” is a word that means “to decide against someone or to give a judgment against someone.” It’s an athletic term that is related to the Greek word for umpire. Paul is saying the false teachers were relying on their religious experiences to determine who really ranked in the church. And if you didn’t have the same type of experiences they were having, just like an umpire they would say, “You’re out!” You don’t rank. You don’t qualify. The false teachers were acting like self-appointed spiritual referees who were disqualifying the Colossians because they did not have certain religious experiences.

      – examples: worship of angels; visions

Well, what kind of religious experiences were these false teachers having? Paul mentions two examples here: the worship of angels and visions.

Now you might wonder where the worship of angels comes from. Our best guess is that the false teachers taught that God was so far above us that we could only worship him through a series of angelic intermediaries. This grew out of their false teaching that physical or materials things were evil. They reasoned that if our bodies were evil, we could not worship God directly, so we would need to use this series of angels in order to reach God.

But there are two big problems with this. First of all, this teaching denies Christ as the mediator between God and man. 1 Timothy 2:5 says: “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 2:5) Jesus is the only mediator you need between God and man, not a series of angels.

And then the second problem is this: you’re not supposed to worship angels. You should only worship God. Satan is a fallen angel, and when he tried to get Jesus to worship him in the wilderness, Jesus told him: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matthew 4:10) Well, Satan is a bad angel. What about the good angels? In the book of Revelation when the apostle John started to worship an angel, the angel told him: “Don’t do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!” (Revelation 19:10)

It’s interesting, history tells us that the worship of angels continued to be a problem in this area for centuries to come. In A.D. 363 a church synod in Laodicea had to address this issue: “It is not right for Christians to abandon the church of God and go away to invoke angels.” (Canon 25) There are records that the archangel Michael was worshiped in Asia Minor as late as A.D. 739.

Of course it’s easy to pick on people in the past. But what about some of our focus on angels today? Some people are fascinated with all things angels and angel stories. They may not be actually worshiping angels, but if a focus on angels draws attention away from Jesus Christ, then something’s not right.

So these false teachers were worshiping angels, and they were also having visions. These were probably visions brought on by the extreme fasting and ascetic practices that Paul discusses in the next section. They were obviously very proud about these visions because Paul says they went into great detail about what they had seen.

   B. The problem: false humility (pride)
      – 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

So the worship of angels and visions – these were both examples of mysticism, relying on religious experience for one’s status in the church. The problem with mysticism, Paul says, is that people who rely on religious experience display a false humility which is really just pride in disguise. Paul says of such a person: “his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.” The irony here is they thought they were being so spiritual, when Paul says they were not spiritual at all! They thought they were super-spiritual, but Paul says they are unspiritual.

Now there is nothing wrong with religious experience in and of itself. It’s only wrong when we compare, when we try to make our experience the standard for someone else’s spirituality. Or when we make more of our experience than what Jesus has done for us on the cross. We also need to remember that religious experience does not equal spiritual maturity. The true test of spiritual maturity is not what kind of experiences you have had, but rather knowledge of God’s word leading to love for God and other people. (see 1 Cor 12-14)

The apostle Paul had visions of heaven and angels, but he did not boast about them. Rather he boasted about Christ. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12: “I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses.” (2 Corinthians 12:5)

   C. The solution: Stay connected with Christ.
      – John 15:4-5; Colossians 2:2, 3:14

So if the problem with mysticism is false humility and pride, what is the solution? The solution is to stay connected with Christ. Look at verse 19: “He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” (Colossians 2:19) The solution is to stay connected with Christ from whom the whole body of Christ grows.

The only way to grow as a Christian is to stay connected with Christ. As Jesus said in John 15: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” (John 15:4)

Stay connected with Christ from whom the whole body grows as God causes it to grow. There should be no jockeying for position within the church based on our religious experiences. True spiritual growth comes from God, not from our experiences. Once again, Christ is central. How do you fight mysticism? Stay connected with Christ.

III. Fighting asceticism – Don’t let anyone take away your freedom (20-23)

We’ve talked about fighting legalism, fighting mysticism, and now finally we come to fighting asceticism. Well if legalism is relying on religious rules and mysticism is relying on religious experiences, what is asceticism? Asceticism is relying on religious acts of self-denial to grow in holiness. The danger with asceticism is that people take each other’s freedom away by condemning things which God has called good. And so Paul warns us: Don’t let anyone take away your freedom.

   A. Relying on religious acts of self-denial to grow in holiness
      – John 15:19; Galatians 4:9; 1 Timothy 4:1-5

Back to Colossians 2 now, look at verses 20-21: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’?” (Colossians 2:20-21 )

Asceticism teaches that denying yourself leads to greater holiness and approval from God. Now we are all called to deny ourselves and follow Christ but not as a means of acceptance with God or to grow in holiness. Paul says you died with Christ to the principles of this world. Why are you still submitting to its rules as though you belonged to it? As Jesus told his disciples in John 15: “You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.” (John 15:19)

      – examples: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”

Now once again, this had to do with the false teaching of dualism. The false teachers taught that material or physical things were evil, and we see this in the kinds of rules the false teachers were proposing: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Colossians 2:21)

These are the basic rules of asceticism. The word “handle” is similar to the word “touch” but it is a stronger word which means “to touch or grasp.” It was used of both food and sex, so fasting from food and abstaining from sex are probably both in mind here. To “taste” obviously is to enjoy, and then the third word “touch” is a milder word for just touching something. So you notice the progression here in the false teacher’s rules. Do not handle; do not taste; do not even touch!

   B. The problem: merely human commands and teachings
      – Isaiah 29:13; Colossians 2:3; 1 Timothy 6:17

But the problem with all this is that these are merely human commands and teachings. Look at verses 22-23 where Paul writes: “These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:22-23)

What’s Paul saying? These are not God’s rules but man’s rules. They are all destined to perish. They have to do with material things that will pass away, which is especially true with food. You eat it, it’s gone! None of these commands will carry on into heaven. There will be no fasting in heaven. There will be no asceticism. Rather we will experience the fullness of joy in God’s presence. These commands have no eternal value because they are not based on God’s Word, but man’s word.

Paul says these rules look spiritual on the outside. They have an appearance of wisdom. But that’s only if we buy into this whole dualistic mindset that material things are evil. But the material things of this world are not evil and meant to be avoided. They are good and meant to be enjoyed. That’s what we read in 1 Timothy 6:17: “God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17) We think that people who do these superhuman feats of self-denial must be super-spiritual, but there is no real wisdom in asceticism. Remember Colossians 2:3 says: “All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ.” (Colossians 2:3)

Paul says that these rules are a self-imposed or self-made worship. These are not God’s requirements but rather self-imposed requirements. God says in Isaiah 29:13: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.” (Isaiah 29:13)

Paul also speaks of their harsh treatment of the body. Ascetics have done some really strange things in the name of spirituality over the years. Some wore uncomfortable thick hair shirts. I like how one person put it – as if itching were spiritual! Others isolated themselves, sleeping on hard beds and living in cramped quarters. Some whipped themselves or jumped naked into thorn bushes. Others fasted for prolonged periods of times. There was one famous ascetic in the fifth century, Simeon the Stylite (c.388-459), who spent the last 36 years of his life living on top of a 50-foot pillar! So people have done some really crazy things in the name of asceticism, but Paul says it’s all man-made rules. God never told you to do any of this stuff.

But beyond all that there is another problem with asceticism which is simply this: it doesn’t work! That’s what Paul says about all these ascetic practices at the end of verse 23: “but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:23) I mean, really, think about it, what good does living on top of a pillar do you?

The bottom line is this. Man loves to try to earn God’s favor by works. We will choose penance over repentance anytime. But religious acts of self-denial are merely human commands and teachings. They have an appearance of wisdom, but they don’t actually work when it comes to growing in holiness.

   C. The solution: Remember that you already died with Christ.
      – Galatians 2:19-20; Colossians 2:20

So what does work? The solution is to remember that you have already died with Christ to the basic principles of this world. Look at verse 20 one last time: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?” (Colossians 2:20) You don’t need to keep killing yourself through repeated acts of asceticism. Why? Because you already died with Christ. When you put your faith in Christ, you were united with him in his death, burial and resurrection. You have already been given new life in Christ. The answer is not more asceticism but simply faith in Christ who died for you and remembering that by faith you died with him. As Paul writes in Galatians 2: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)

There is a place for fasting in the Christian life but never as a substitute for Christ. We don’t need additional rules for the outside. We need Christ and the Holy Spirit on the inside. What’s the solution for asceticism? Remember that you already died with Christ.

CONCLUSION: People are always tempted to substitute something for Christ, but there are no good substitutes for Christ. Christ has everything you need to live the Christian life. And so once again, as we have seen all the way through this letter, Christ is central. The Christian life is not about religious rules, religious experiences, or religious acts of self-denial. Legalism, mysticism, asceticism – these are all poor substitutes for Christ.

As a Christian you have already received fullness and freedom in Christ. You cannot add to what Christ has already done for you. It’s like a glass of water that is filled to the brim. You can’t add anything to it without spilling what’s already inside. In the same way you have received fullness in Christ, and you cannot add anything else without taking away from what Christ has already done for you. True spirituality is not a matter of religious rules or religious experiences or religious acts, but rather a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Legalism cannot buy you acceptance with God. You are accepted by God through faith in Christ who came in fulfillment of the law. Mysticism brings division into the body of Christ. We need to stay connected with Christ from whom the whole body grows together. Each person is vitally and equally important. Asceticism will not help you grow in holiness. Remembering that you already died with Christ to this world will.

What’s today’s message in a nutshell? Don’t substitute anything for Christ! Keep Christ at the center. All other things are just poor substitutes.

Click here for more messages from the book of Colossians.
Click here to return to the Sermons page.