Sunday, May 01, 2011

Colossians 07: Let No One Disqualify You

Scripture Text: Colossians 2:16-23


Today is the second Sunday in Easter, and it is important to remember that the Easter season continues this week. We live as a resurrection people, as men and women who believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead, and we acknowledge him as Lord of everything in the universe, including our own lives, how we use all of the resources God has given to us, including our time and our money. Everything flows from this reality that Jesus is the risen King.

When we last examined Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we saw how Paul has shown them, and us, that God had put our sin-debt to death by nailing it to the Cross of Christ (Col. 2:14). If you acknowledge Jesus as Lord by faith, then the totality of your sin-debt is wiped out. It doesn’t exist anymore. In putting sin to death, Jesus disarmed all of the demonic rulers and principalities who would love to use that sin-debt as an occasion to accuse you, in order cause you shame and guilt in an attempt to persuade you that you might not be forgiven. Instead, Paul tells the Colossians, and us, that Jesus has “disarmed the rules and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15).

You would think that the stupendous payment God made for our sin through Jesus’ death on the Cross, followed by His vindication and victory of the resurrection, would be sufficient for everyone in the church who believes in Jesus by faith. How can you “achieve” any spiritual “fullness” greater than the full and complete pardon for sin granted graciously by a loving and merciful God? You can’t! Yet, beginning in the early church and continuing to this day, there are those for whom the idea of God’s gracious forgiveness is never enough. There has to be something more, some kind of ecstatic personal experience or insider knowledge of the divine that goes beyond the totally and complete victory Jesus won for us. And so there have been some, who usually appear in the church, who would employee “plausible arguments” (Col. 2:4) to persuade Christians into thinking there are ways to achieve spiritual fullness and enhanced spiritual knowledge apart from the fullness that is found only in Jesus, “in whom are hidden all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).

The Text – No Judgment, No Disqualification for Those in Christ

This week, Paul uses language that gets to the crux of what was going on in Colossae. It’s impossible to know with certainty, based on this letter, the exact details of the false teaching, but the details aren’t important. What is important is that there is, in the church, a suggestion that the completed work of Christ isn’t sufficient for the Christians, and that “spiritual advancement” could take place apart from the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

When people appear in the church claiming to have a superior way of experiencing the fullness of Christ, we ought to be greatly suspicious. Such claims inevitably lead to unhelpful and even lethal divisions in the church. In Colossae, there were those who insisted that real spiritual fullness and advancement could only be achieved through the observance of certain rules and regulations, including engaging in spiritual practices of asceticism (self-denial).

Paul has just said that Jesus has “disarmed all the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him,” If Christ has won the victory of all demonic powers and has through His word granted forgiveness of sins, and if you, Colossian Christians, and you, Jackson Christians, believe this by faith, what more do you need? Do you need the approval of others who claim a great knowledge of spiritual techniques and refinements? To this Paul says, No!
[16] 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. [17] These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
One thing we can deduce from this is that it seems there were elements that were part of some kind of syncretism, a melding of religious systems, that a certain individual or individuals were trying to persuade the Colossians to follow. The allusions to festivals, new moons, and Sabbath seem to be a clearly Jewish in origin. And what Paul says about these is that they are “shadows” of the things to come.

The reason these “judgments” of others are invalid is that the old order has given way to a new kingdom reality in Christ. So, for example, what a person eats or drinks is not longer of concern. Romans 14:17, Paul states:
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
What Paul is saying here is that righteousness comes from Christ and by faith in Him alone. And when by faith you know that the perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed to you, you can have peace and joy because you know that you will not ultimately be condemned in the judgment to come. The suggestion by some false teachers that non-observance of these regulations might impede spiritual growth is shown to be foolishness, mere shadows of an old order that has been decisively defeated by Jesus.

Just as there is no judgment for those who believe in Christ, no one who is in Christ will be disqualified by refusing to engage in other speculative, nonsensical spiritual practices of the world:
[18] 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,
Here we get a sense of what these spiritual practices are really about, they are about appearing puffed up, of being more advanced in spiritual exercises that produce salvation in God. Today, this kind of thing surfaces with the increasingly popular melding of, say, Yoga and Christian meditation. But there is a fatal flaw in these practices, they are not rooted in Christ, but are instead of the world. So these false teachers are not, as Paul says, “holding fast to the Head” (verse 19). The Head is Jesus Christ, “from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” Spiritual growth and maturity in the church comes exclusively from God in the person of Jesus Christ. And such nourishment is for “the whole body,” not just for those who engage in various superfluous spiritual exercises.

Paul’s criticism in verse 19 is very devastating, because it clearly suggests the false teachers in Colossae were not attached to the head. Their practices had no substances, were mere shadows, and the “fulfillment” achieved by these false teachers was empty.

Paul reminds the Colossians that once you’re in Christ, you die to the old ways of the world and you die to the slavery that the demonic powers had over your life:
[20] If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—[21] “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” [22] (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?
If you have been so liberated from sin, Paul says, why on earth would you continue to obey worldly regulations about things that don’t even last, but perish “as they are used” Isn’t it nonsensical to give up your Christian liberty from sin in this way, by taking on rules and regulations that have no value whatsoever?

Now, at this point, you may be in total agreement with Paul. Why yes, you might say, I understand that if I’m in Christ and worship him alone, the old life is dead and gone and I have a new, joy filled eternal existence in Jesus. What would persuade me that Jesus isn’t enough in my life?

Why would anyone be tempted to go back to the worldly ways and under the slavery of the elemental spirits of the world? Paul reveals the answer to this question in the last verse of today’s reading:
[23] These [false teachings] have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
All of these things, including asceticism (self-denial) and “severity to the body” (which may have included self-mutilation practices) are “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” In fact, what I think Paul is saying here is that they are totally about the indulgence of the flesh. These practices may seem to be very spiritual and pious, says Paul, but they are, in fact, rooted in our innate, sinful desire to justify ourselves by actions and practices we can undertake in order to be favorably received by God. These worldly exercises are about our sinful pride.

To all of that Paul says, forget it! Why, if you have received Christ through the Word of truth, the gospel, and have been graciously transferred into God’s Kingdom and have the assurance of eternal life with him, would you ever try to go it your own way? Why would you adopt the old ways of the world in an attempt to look better in the new world into which you have been transferred? All of the worldly ways lead to death! Why would you adopt ideas and practices that lead to death when you are already a recipient of eternal life in the Kingdom of God in Christ?


It is easy to stand here and, with you, say that we would never buy into this kind of thing, but in fact Christians do all the time. We live in a culture that thrives on self-exaltation and self-promotion, and I deeply worry that we are easy marks for spiritual teachings that make much of us and what we do at the expense of making much of Jesus and what he has already done.

Christians are constantly tempted to shift their focus away from Jesus and onto themselves. But, as Tullian Tchvidjian wisely notes, “To focus on how I’m doing more than on what Christ has done is Christian narcissism."1

These spiritual practices of the false teachers in Colossae were designed to make much of the self. “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion” Paul writes. We always want salvation on our own terms, because then we can maintain some control. We can affect other’s perceptions of us though the power of positive thinking, we believe, even through others perceptions are infinitely less important to us than God’s perception of us in Christ. We are, by nature, a people who cannot stand the idea that Jesus should have had to die for our sins, especially if we like the sins in question, so we adopt practices and interpretations of Holy Scripture that suit us, even if they are false. We see this today in the contemporary debates over human sexuality and other hot-button topics. Humans have an almost unparalleled ability to find ways to avoid the saving purposes of God in their lives when there are parts of their lives they would prefer not be put to death. The reason they don’t want them to die is that have bought the lie that joy in God will someone be an insufficient replacement.

Is this the case for you? Is there some sin in your life that you think you cannot part with because it brings you such pleasure? Is there some kind of spiritual discipline or practice you believe is necessary to use in order to get God to do your bidding? Has the bible or the cross become a kind of talisman or good luck charm to you, to be used to provide a desired spiritual result that doesn’t depend first of all upon faith in the completed work of Christ?

Our text today says there ought to be none of that in the church because we are not the head of the body. Christ is, and Jesus will nourish us with his Word and Sacrament, as he always does. The end of our spiritual quest for fulfillment is a person, Jesus Christ. He is the Head. He leads the way. He feeds us the spiritual food He knows we need. He is our Lord. He is our Savior. He is our Rock and Fortress when the world itself shakes. He is the Alpha and Omega of all creation. He is the Lord of all life, including yours and mine. In Him, we are new people. We are resurrection people. Rest in that knowledge whenever your feeling disoriented and lost and let down by the elemental spirits of this age. Amen.

1From the following Twitter posting:!/PastorTullian/status/63277008897060864

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
May 1, 2011
Second Sunday in Eastertide
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew
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