In this passage we shall learn how utterly useless it is to measure our Christian maturity according to earthly standards and will be challenged to instead fix our eyes completely on Christ as the source and measure of true sanctification so that we will not live a life imprisoned by human decrees but will enjoy the freeing glory of knowing Christ.
Paul loved the church at Colossae. The second sentence of this letter begins with an outburst of thanksgiving to God for the faith and the love of the Colossian church. He was thrilled to see the Word of God bearing fruit in their lives (Col. 1:6).
As a result, it was his prayer in vv. 9-12 that the Colossians be filled with biblical truth so that they would walk in a manner worthy of the Lord with thankful hearts. To see this desire fulfilled, Paul's ministry plan was clear. Col. 1:28 gives an outline of Paul's strategy for producing mature Christians - proclaim Christ, admonish and teach every man with all wisdom.
In chapter 2 Paul begins to unfold practical instruction to help the Colossians grow strong in the Lord. His instruction is summed up in Col. 2:6.
This morning we will be looking at Col. 2:20-3:3, but let's begin by reading Col. 2:6-2:23.
As we now turn to our passage for this morning, we are going to see two truths clearly outlined, truths which I hope will be especially helpful for us today as we prepare for our member's meeting tonight. The Lord has blessed our church with so many opportunities to serve and to minister. It can easily become tempting to begin to evaluate our spiritual health as a church and as individuals by examining our ability to be involved in certain activities or to follow certain rules. However, as Paul is about to explain, this is a dangerous tendency.
Instead, we are to forsake all useless legalism, and instead focus on our glorious relationship with Christ.
I. Forsake Useless Legalism (2:20-23)
A. The Useless Essence of Legalism (vv. 20-22)
Paul's Question (v. 20)
Paul is confused by the behavior of the Colossians in this verse. They have made a logical error. If someone has died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, then they should be free from any worldly decrees. But the exact opposite was happening. Those who had supposedly been freed from the chains of this world were still sitting in their old cells and obeying their old jail wardens.
What is under question here is not the salvation of the Colossians, but their continued submission to worldly principles. Paul's question "if" at the beginning of (v. 20) is also rightly rendered since in some translations. This is also true in Col. 3:1. In Col. 3:4 Paul directly states that those he is writing to indeed have died and their lives are hidden in Christ.
If the members of the church in Collosae had been merely deceived into thinking they were saved, then there would be no real contradiction in the mind of Paul. He would instead write to them saying, "Since you only appear to have died with Christ, it is only natural that you submit yourself to decrees!"
If you are here this morning, and you have not died with Christ, if you have not turned your back on everything in this world and placed your complete and single trust in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on behalf of your sin, then all that follows today does not apply to you.
You are still trapped under the guilt of the law and of the elementary principles of this world. And what are these elementary principles we must die to?
The Greek word here, στοιχείων, was used by Plato and others to speak of the four elements believed to compose the world: earth, wind, water and fire. From this definition the word came to mean the most fundamental aspects of the world.
In the New Testament it came to refer primarily to three things.
First, it could refer to the physical elements which make up the universe, and which will be destroyed by fire when Christ makes all things new (2 Peter 3:10, 12).
Paul's use of this term in Galatians is especially helpful (read Galatians 4:3-11). Notice how Paul points out our duel slavery - to the law and to "those which are by nature no gods." Our freedom in Christ is from those idols, and should, as well, be from the observance of "days and months and seasons and years" - from legalistic observance of laws, in other words. So, are the elementary things idols or laws? Yes!
Back in Colossians we see Paul give us yet more insight into the elementary principles of the world. In Col. 2:8 he relates three concepts - philosophy and empty deception, the tradition of men, and the elementary principles of the world.
From these verses we can define the elementary principles of the world as anything we would use to reach moral perfection through the law, tradition, or human reason.
This is so clearly seen in around us today. Go down to ARC or Sierra college and start asking students what the value of Christianity is, and one of the answers you will hear the most is that it makes you a better person.
What should capture our attention this morning is that this definition is equally true if you do it in the name of some pagan idol or if you supposedly do it in the name of the One True God.
This is what we were to have died to! Paul's consternation is that even though we are supposedly dead to these elementary principles, we are still enslaving ourselves to them.
His word, usually translated as "submit yourself" is an interesting word - δογματίζεσθε. The root word is where we get our English word dogma, meaning a doctrine or teaching. In this context it literally means to become dogmatized, indoctrinated, brainwashed.
"You just finally freed yourself from the chains of human achievement," says Paul, "why do you now brainwash yourself with new worldly rules!"
One commentator had this to say regarding our tendency to return to the elementary principles of the world:
Too often, Christians let the practical issues of the world become reference points for their spiritual development. This may happen in two radically different ways. Christians may become preoccupied with this world by indulging in its activities. Lives of luxury, licentiousness, and lust destroy spiritual insight and growth. Christians also easily become preoccupied with this world by measuring their Christian growth in terms of this world and its reference points. Thus they look to their separation from the world as evidence of their Christian maturity. In this, their spiritual road signs are the things of this world, rather than the things of Christ. This latter situation was the problem at Colosse. They were looking to worldly wisdom to measure spirituality.
Richard R. Melick, vol. 32, Philippians, Colissians, Philemon, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1991), 275.
Paul's Examples (v. 21)
This is why the examples Paul mentions of decrees are all earthly things - do not handle, do not taste, do not touch! They are rules that involve limiting ourselves in the realm of sensual experience. They are standards based on earthly, physical measurements - not measured against the spiritual standards of Christ. And they will not last!
Paul's Evaluation (v. 22)
Paul draws two contrasts in this verse, the first is ironic, and the second is direct.
First he tells us that in each example decree he just listed, the object of the decree will perish with use. Long before any of our modern textbooks were written, Paul here describes the second law of thermodynamics. Everything tends to move from order to disorder, harmony to chaos, living to dead. Or, as Paul puts it, everything in our physical universe perishes from use. Everything we have, and everything we physically are, is at this moment in the process of being worn out. Its final destruction is inevitable.
"You should be dead to the elementary principles of the world," says Paul, and then he adds, "besides, the elementary principles are just going to die on you anyway."
Imagine a weightlifter with a sturdy weight bar and two massive weights on each end, made of soft chalk. "I am the strongest man in the world since I alone can lift this heavy weight," he boasts. Yet, every time he raises the bar over his head and then puts it down, some of the chalk cracks and falls off. Over time the weights wear down until nothing is left but the bar itself, which a young child can readily lift. If that bar were the weightlifters only standard for strength, then he will look like a great fool.
So Paul closes his question by telling us that worldly standards of righteousness are completely useless because of their very essence, their very quality. This world is perishing, and all that it contains will perish with it.
The second comparison that Paul makes here is between allegiances. Whose side are you on? There is God's side, and there is man's side. There is the law of God, and there are the commandments of man. If we have died with Christ (v. 20), then that is where our allegiance should lie. If we submit ourselves to the elementary principles of the world, then we have allied ourselves with men by following their commandments and teaching (v. 22).
The choice is clear. Will you die to the elementary principles of this world, or will you subject yourself to them only to watch those very principles rot and disintegrate beneath your feet? Will follow Christ or will you submit yourself to the decrees of men? How vain and useless it is to live in bondage to the decrees of man, and this uselessness, as we have seen, is inherent in the very nature of the elementary principles of the world.
Paul goes on in v. 23 to show how useless the effects of submitting to earthly principles are, but I want to stop briefly to add a word of clarification.
Study, Discipline and Godly Behavior Are Good!
Paul is not starting a movement to throw out all standards of godly living and promote people doing whatever they want to do. Paul is not suggesting that we stop studying God's Word, disciplining ourselves and living lives with the highest moral standards.
In fact, we see quite the opposite even in this letter.
- Paul praises God for the Colossians hearing of word of truth in Col. 1:5.
- Paul calls Epaphras a faithful servant of Christ because he taught the Colossians the grace of God in truth in Col. 1:7
- Paul says that his ceaseless prayer has been that the Colossians would be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all wisdom and understanding in Col. 1:9
- Paul goes on to say that longs for the Colossians to bear fruit in every good work as a result of their knowledge in Col. 1:10
- Paul describes how the plan of salvation has the goal of making us holy and blameless people, completely beyond reproach in Col. 1:22
- Paul sums up his ministry as one of proclaiming, admonishing and teaching in Col. 1:28
- We could go on and on...
Paul consistently endorses giving our utmost energies to the task of spiritual growth and discipline.
- He tells us of how he disciplined his own body to make it his slave in 1 Corinthians 9:27
- He tells fathers to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord
- In our chapter, he rejoices to see the good discipline of the Colossians in Col. 2:5
- He tells Timothy to discipline himself for the purpose of godliness
- It is God himself, says Paul in 2 Tim 1:7 who gives us a spirit of discipline
So then we are not to shy away from laboring hard to live a disciplined and godly life in our bodies, but somehow we are to avoid submitting ourselves to the elementary principles of the world. This is because they are useless in essence, and because they are useless in effect.
B. The Useless Effect of Legalism (v. 23)
Paul's discussion in v. 23 is very candid. He simply tells us like it is. It is no secret that those who live their lives enslaved to the decrees of men appear very wise, very righteous, very religious, very devout and very humble. But as we shall see, this is an appearance only and has no substance.
Paul describes the lengths to which such individuals go in their efforts to please God through human means. Specifically, such individuals resort to three behaviors, all of which are external.
First, they resort to self-made religion. As far as scholars can tell, Paul made up a word here to make this point. It isn't found outside of Scripture, and it is found only here inside of Scripture. It is a compound word meaning to be externally religious through the exercise of your will. It speaks of those who desire to produce devotion for God, or to impress God, through the sheer power of their own human strength.
Remember the tower of Babel when men thought they could build a tower to heaven? It is as foolish to try to produce godliness through the efforts of man's fallen will as it is to try to reach the spiritual gates of heaven climbing a ladder of brick and mortar.
Application - Are we striving according to our own strength?
It is time for a gut-check. Grace Church of Sacramento, what motivates our service to God? What is it that drives our spiritual disciplines, that adds fuel to our ministry zeal? Are you feeling discouraged and empty in your spiritual walk? Do you feel that you are trying to climb Mount Everest with one foot tied behind your back? Could it be that there are those among us who are trying, even by being here this morning, to please God and grow spiritually by going through the external paces of Christianity under no power but that of your own human will?! You are already defeated, as we shall soon see. But first, let us look at the second expression of subjection to the elementary principles of the world - self-abasement.
This term is an interesting one. It is another compound word that literally means a lowly trembling. This describes someone who is visibly subject to those around them. It is used 7 times in the New Testament, 5 of which are positive! The only two times it is used negatively are in this book. Look with me at Col. 2:18. Here Paul cautions believers to avoid those who delight in self-abasement externally, but who are internally inflated without cause by their fleshly mind!
Again we see this term in our verse, but I want to look at one last verse in Colossians. Look at Col. 3:12. In this verse we are commanded to put this lowly trembling on! So how does this work? How can this be a sign of sinfulness twice, and now it is commanded for the believer? The answer lies in the little word heart. (Ok, technically the word is bowels, but Paul is referring to seat of our emotions and our sympathies.) If you apply humility to your body in an attempt to posture yourself as pious, lowly, Christ-like - you achieve nothing but the inflation of your pride.
You might as well be like the Pharisees who would shave their heads, powder their faces and walk about in great public display of their self-abasement.
However, if you instead apply this type of humility to your heart, then you have something else indeed! Instead of a grand demonstration of hypocrisy, you will find within yourself the very mind of Christ who modeled the instruction of Paul in Philippians 2:3 when he wrote, "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility (our word) of mind (an internal application) regard one another as more important than yourselves..."
Application - Viewing Ourselves
So the question for us, then, is this: where is our humility? Is it rooted in our hearts, controlling our minds, so that we regard others as more important than ourselves? Or is it pasted onto our flesh in a shallow external display that produces nothing but self-inflation so that we think we are the most important person in the universe because of our incredible humility!
As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 5:5, God is indeed opposed to the proud - especially those who masquerade as the humble, for their sin adds to pride that of hypocrisy and they become especially foul in His nostrils.
Let there not be any among us this morning who fall into this category. And if we see this terrible spirit lurking within us, let us cast it out immediately.
Severe Treatment of the Body
Lastly in this list, we find the ultimate display of self-righteousness - severe treatment of the body.
This term is another word that only appears here in all of Scripture. It literally means without sparing. This is the merciless treatment of oneself. In what is hoped to be the ultimate display of self-mastery, humility, and piety, some take the practice of mercilessly abusing themselves. Throughout history this has taken many forms. Martin Luther bore the scars of self-inflicting whipping upon his back, often beating himself into semi-consciousness in an attempt to please God. Even today in some parts of the world there are those who, in the name of Christianity, crucify themselves on Easter to show God the extent of their devotion. What a sad, tragic, and useless attempt to please God!
Paul's back must have been quite the site. Beaten times without number, as he wrote in 2 Cor. 11:23, it is significant that not a single mark was self-inflicted.
"Why would someone do that to himself?" you may ask. The answer is simple - it is the attempt to master the sinful flesh and appease a righteous God through human effort. Because of this, it is the epitome of pride.
What profit is there to this human effort? Is there any degree of merit? Can I achieve even a small victory through my own efforts? No!
Look at the end of v. 23. It is true that this behavior looks pretty impressive on the outside, but it has a lethal flaw. Such behavior is of no value against fleshly indulgence. For the third time in this verse Paul uses a word unique to the Bible. The word translated indulgence means filling up. The desires of the flesh are like the pool at the base of Niagara Falls - constantly being filled to overflowing. Trying to stem the tide through human effort is as profitable as trying to plug Niagara Falls with a bottle cork and some super glue. You may give your all in the effort, and may even die trying, but your efforts are completely in vain. You simply do not have the resources or abilities to accomplish the task. When it comes to battling our flesh, to damming up the desires of the flesh, there is but one source of victory in the whole of the universe - Jesus Christ. What happens when we choose to listen to the voices of those who urge subjecting ourselves to human decrees? We defraud ourselves.
We are defrauded
Col.2:16-19 describes the result of listening to those who place themselves in a position of spiritual superiority - we are completely robbed of our prize!
Illustration: New Shoes
Suppose a child is given a pair of brand new, bright white, high-top athletic shoes. The child joyfully puts them on and gets ready to run outside to play. Just then, however, one of his friends comes up shaking his head reprovingly. "What are you doing!" says the friend. "You can't just run out and play in your shoes! You obviously need someone to explain how to properly use and care for your new shoes." The young boy looks down at his shoes and, greatly valuing them, asks his friend to instruct him. "Well," his friend begins, "make sure you always lace them evenly so that each string is exactly the same length. Tie them snug, but not too tight. Make sure you have worn cotton socks that have been freshly washed. Also, you must never wear them outdoors, or they will get dirty. Wearing them indoors is rude too, so you should not do that either."
At this point the little boy will either sadly remove his shoes and put them someplace in his closet, soon to be forgotten, or he will ignore the advice of his friend and run out the door to play.
There are those who would see the great prize we have been given by Christ, and instead of rejoicing with us, will attempt to heap such a legalistic burden upon us that we might as well have been robbed.
So then, what does mark true Christianity? What is it that produces that kind of sanctification that God requires? It is simply this - a mind and heart too full of Jesus Christ, and too satisfied by our relationship with Jesus Christ to have any room for anything else.
A month ago Mark Zhakevich did an excellent joy preaching through these next four verses, and I do not attempt to improve upon his ministry to us, but we must return here to see the conclusion of what we have studied this morning.
II. Focus on Our Glorious Relationship with Christ (3:1-4)
Paul, in these four verses, gives us a wonderful parallel to the previous four. He begins with the exact same kind of phrase as he did in Col. 2:20 to introduce the value of both the essence and effect of a relationship with Jesus Christ as opposed to the results of human effort.
A. The Glorious Essence of Our Relationship (vv. 1-3)
"If then," says Paul, and we can read this since as we did in Col. 2:20, "you have been raised with Christ." This is the essence of our relationship with Christ. We have been raised. We no longer occupy the plane of this world! Paul wrote to the Ephesians that we have been seated with Christ in the heavenly placed (Eph. 2:6). Since we enjoy such a freedom in Christ - this is where our thoughts should be.
Paul is not giving suggestions. "Seek the things that are above, where Christ is," he commands. "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth!"
Illustration: Staring at the Sun
We are to be engaged in a permanent contest to see who can stare at the Son the longest. And just like staring at our physical sun soon leaves us blind to everything else in the world and fills our mind with only the blazing light of that great luminary, so staring at the divine Son should leave us blind to this world and enraptured by His splendor.
Are you struggling with being motivated to evangelize? You could try to make a chart and force yourself to speak to a certain number of people each week through sheer determination. Or you could think about heaven until you care more about the glory of God being acknowledged by sinful people transformed into worshippers than you care about the opinions of man.
Are you struggling to overcome a sinful habit in your life? You could join 20 accountability groups, start living in a tiny cave by the American River and live off of locusts and honey. Or you could reflect on the person of Jesus Christ and your position in Him as an adopted child of God until your sin grieves you so bitterly that you throw it away and run back to the loving arms of your Father.
I have talked to at least two people recently who told me that the problem with their relationship with God was that they smoked, drank or slept around. "I think I'll be able to go back to heaven," said one individual, "as soon as I stop doing these things." Smoking and drinking and sleeping around were not keeping these people out of heaven - their biggest problem was that they had absolutely no love for God. They had no relationship with him. They could stop smoking and drinking tomorrow and they would be not a single step closer to heaven, and they would likely be worse because of the pride of self-achievement they would feel.
And this goes beyond simply overcoming sin. This must affect our ministry as well. Do you minister because your heart is so full of Christ that you can't help but to employ yourself in serving Him? Do you love the family of Christ so much that you can't help but serve others as well?
Tonight we are going to talk about all the different things God is doing here at this church. It is exciting to see all the different ministries that have been established and which are growing and spreading. But it would be better if we didn't have a single ministry than if we serve according to the legalistic dictates of human effort. Only when we are looking into heaven are we beholding anything of value.
The very essence of our relationship is glorious, but its effect is glorious as well.
B. The Glorious Effect of Our Relationship (v. 4)
Twice Paul has told us today that we have died (Col. 2:20; 3:3). But twice he has told us what happened after that death. In Col. 3:1, 3 we learn that we have been raised with Christ and that our life is hidden with Him in God.
Col. 3:4 goes even further to tell us that Christ Himself is our life. He is not just with our life, He in fact is our life. We are connected inseparably to Him. Thus, we anxiously await His appearing because His appearing will be our appearing. When our life is revealed in the fullness of His glory, we shall be revealed fully glorified in Him.
What a dramatic difference between the hope we have in our relationship with Christ and that which comes from the elementary principles of the world. In Christ we have life, the elementary principles of the world are perishing even now. The elementary principles of the world are useless to do so much as stem the tide of fleshly desires, but in Christ we have not only the hope of final victory over the flesh but of complete glorification!
It is tempting to want to go back to verse 20 and pen Paul's question more strongly. "Why, why, why, why on earth would you possibly be so foolish as to even contemplate turning your eyes from the glories of Christ in heaven to enslave yourself to human standards which are destined to bring you ruin?"
So then, what does true Christian ministry look like? What will describe my life if I am keeping my eyes fixed on Christ? Let us close by reading Col. 3:5-17.