Let No One
Comparison is the way that we often judge ourselves and others . We start this at an early age by comparing our toys with one another. Or one kid may say to another that, ‘my dad can beat up your dad.’ In high school, kids decide what is cool and what is not on the basis of what someone wears. This pattern follows us into our adulthood. Our car culture in California programs many of us to think that our cars are a statement about us. We do not see a car as a utilitarian device to get us from point A to point B, but as an extension of who we are. Therefore sometimes our impression of a person comes from what they drive even before we get to know them.
We do the same thing with our faith. When we meet someone who says they are Christian, it is normal to find out what church they attend. If someone is a Oneness Pentecostal it will throw up red flags in our minds. The same red flags may go up in someone else’s mind when you tell them that you are a Presbyterian. Presbyterians are usually liberals, and by calling yourself a Presbyterian they may be wondering about you.
When we make a comparison there is a process that goes on internally. What we are doing is either setting our own standards or accepting someone’s standards by which to look at people and things. What is good or bad, right or wrong is found in the criteria that we use in our comparisons. Comparisons are not always bad since this is the way that we make many decisions. But when the criteria that we use are wrong then we begin to act on wrong assumptions. Paul is writing to a group of people who are being judged on what they practice more than what they believe. The Colossians had false teachers who were promoting their standards. Their new followers were making judgments about others based on these new standards.
We need to go over the background of this book and where this passage is coming from to get a better understanding of our passage. Paul has never been to this church, but the pastor, Epaphras, has come to him to tell him of heretical teachings which have infiltrated his church. He begins the book by emphasizing the gospel that Epaphras has taught them is correct. Paul also shares his own concern for their welfare. He then will begin to hammer home what is the main theme of this book – the supremacy of Christ. He lays out Christ’s preeminence in creation and His work of reconciliation. Paul tells about his own work as a steward for Christ. He encourages them to walk in what they have already been taught, and then in chapter two he warns them about those who have crept into their church with lies.
Colossians 2:16-17 (NKJV)
16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.
He begins verse 16 with one of these warnings by saying, “let no one judge you.” The followers of this ‘new’ way are causing divisions and doubts in the believers at Colossae. The false teachers have set up a series of false criteria to tell if someone is wise or spiritual. They are declaring that the things which they are practicing are superior to the way the Colossians learned from Epaphras and by extension, Paul.
What is the basis for this judgment? It is religion. In this false teaching there are elements of the Jewish rites. Paul will deal with the same type of problem with the Judaizers that we see mentioned in other epistles. Here Paul mentions the two aspects of this teaching – dietary laws and special or holy days. First, he mentions that they are being judged because of food and drink. It seems that these teachers are trying to put people back under the Mosaic law about foods like pork and shellfish or other unclean foods.
Second he lists three types of special days – festivals, new moons and Sabbaths. Festivals are the holy days of celebration that the Jews had practiced as part of the law. New moons points to those celebrations that revolve around the seasonal phases of the moon like Passover which is after a full moon. The Jews also recognized not only the weekly Sabbaths but other Sabbaths as well. So whether or not one would keep these practices becomes a gage whether they were spiritual or wise.
We can assume that these are Jewish in origin because of what he says next. Paul calls both the diet rules and special days a ‘shadow of things to come’. Certainly if these practices had a pagan source they could not be a shadow of anything of a spiritual nature. Shadow means a faint sketch or outline. Paul compares that to Christ. Christ is the ‘substance’ or reality of this shadow. When the Jews practiced these things it was only a faint image in a mirror of the Christ who is the theme at the root of all of them. Therefore these people have taken their focus off Christ and have put it on mere foreshadows which are not significant now that He has come.
Paul deals with a similar problem when writing to the Romans, who had a congregation of Jews and Gentiles. This church had a cultural clash between the two groups that caused a great deal of contention. He writes the following:
Romans 14:3-8 (NKJV)
3 Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. 4 Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. 5 One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
His answer to the cultural issue is to look at motive. Paul believes that the question is never what we eat or what days we observe, but that whatever we do is to the Lord.
Colossians 2:18-19 (NKJV)
18 Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God.
In verse eighteen, Paul warns about another set of problems. He says that they are not to be cheated of their reward. The picture here is of a runner or some other competitor who has already won a race and received a palm as a symbol of their victory. But someone has plucked their reward from their hand. But how has this happened? These false teachers have made it point to show how humble they are in comparison to the rest of the Colossians or most likely even their pastor. They take pleasure in showing what a low opinion they have of themselves. Paul writes that they are proud of their humility. Here is an illustration - if I were to brag about my humility wouldn’t that be pride?
Paul here links their humility with the worship of angels. We know that we are commanded not to worship any person or thing but God. This would be true for both Jews and Christians. Here I believe is the influence of the Greek mystery religions. What I think the link between this humility and worship is the same practice that the Roman Catholic has in praying to Mary and the saints. The logic for praying to someone like Mary is an act of humility. The person praying is acknowledging that they are unworthy to go to Christ, but that Mary may hear their prayer and be their intercessor with Him. What would appear to be an act of humility is really is an act of manipulation.
‘Intruding into those things which he has not seen’ is talking about ecstatic visions they believed could allow them to see into the world of angels and spirits. But Christ is not the source of their visions. In fact they have no right to enter into that world even if it were possible. These visions find there source in the person and not from God. As a result of their special ‘insights’ they have become for no reason ‘puffed up’ in who they are in their own minds. The outward facade of humility hides a very high opinion of themselves.
They have let go of the core of the Christian faith - Christ, who is our head. There is no other source for nourishment for the believer. We can not believe that some other tradition or a special way to pray or even some self induced state can provide what we need as believers. All other foods are false and we eat to our harm. Christ is the very glue that holds the body together. If we step away from Him then we have left the strength and power that comes from being part of his body. The promise that these false teachers are holding out is growth in wisdom. But outside of Christ God will give no growth. Instead of providing something for their growth and maturity they are being cheated out of what they already have won in Christ.
Colossians 2:20-22 (NKJV)
20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— 21 “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” 22 which all concern things which perish with the using— according to the commandments and doctrines of men?
Paul will deal with the last of these three errors. He does this by asking a question. The question is if you have died with Christ to the basic or rudimentary principles of this world then why do you subject yourself to them? When Christ was put on the cross and died for our sins, we died with him. The rules in this world that somehow bound us have been removed. We are not under their power anymore. But the false teachers have tried to again bind their hearers to the things from which they have been freed. And in this bondage is a certain power. This is the appeal of the seemingly holy life of the monk. The monk can not touch, taste or handle what is forbidden to him. It is natural to think that this kind of discipline will bring yield some type of reward. However it is a false assumption.
Paul points out the transitory nature of the things being avoided. They perish with the using. If something which can be used up or consumed how can it have any lasting effect? But this set of ascetic teachings says that even momentary contact (do not handle) will cause some kind of harm. Remember it is not Christ who has taught these practices. Isn’t it funny that while some would teach ascetic principles that Christ was called a glutton and a wine bibber? Christ never lived the life or hermit or monk so why should we?
Colossians 2:23 (NKJV)
23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.
Paul summarizes his points. He says that these things have the appearance of wisdom. Each one of them looks good from the outside, but why? We all have a problem with grace. Grace asks for nothing from us. But our natures have a problem with this concept. We have an internal need to contribute or work for God’s grace. We want a spiritual ‘to do’ list. Just tell me what I need to do and I will do it. But grace asks for nothing. This does not mean that we are not called to live holy lives, but there is no expectation of some work like walking seven times around Mecca or crawling on our knees in Rome to be holy.
Self-imposed religion is a comforting thing. If I just deny myself meat every Friday then God will be pleased with me. If I keep Lent, Christmas and Easter as special days then He will see that I am serious and doing my part. As good as some of things might seem they in no way make us holier. These are not means of righteousness. But so many people place their hope in them, because these practices are so easy to keep. Yet it is illusion that things that men have devised as a way to please God can ever achieve thatr end.
False humility is a delusion that many still suffer from in our churches. It is putting oneself down so others can build you up. It is claiming to not be worthy just so others can tell us how worthy we are. False humility is nothing more than pride. Some practice a variation of worship of angels today. Here I am not just talking about Roman Catholics that pray to saints. Whenever someone claims that we must do something to have God hear our prayers then they are doing the same thing. Some evangelicals have claimed that to have our prayers answered we should fast and break down our own wills. They claim that it is in this state of ‘humility’ that we can brake through to God. Others claim that unless we speak in tongues God will know the true intentions of our heart. However the Bible paints a picture of God freely hearing and answering our prayers without pre-conditions.
Neglecting our body is the appeal of the ascetic or monk. Doesn’t it seem strange that in the last few years people have started to take retreats to monasteries and Buddhist temples? Somehow by practicing physical denial they are able to find inner peace and understanding. But we do not become sanctified by abusing ourselves. This was what the reformers had to help people to understand. Starvation does not purify – it only hurts.
But why did the false teachers teach these things? They said that if others would practice these things then they would keep from giving into the flesh. The false teachers’ mantras were the following: If you are religious enough you will not sin. If you are humble enough you will not sin. If you are disciplined enough you will not sin. And Paul says in reply that all these things are of no value against the flesh.
All these criteria for judging others were of no effect for the very thing they were supposed to remedy. Self-denial would seem to be the correction to any indulgence, but it is the opposite because it is a way of pampering the flesh. In verse 18, Paul refers to their being ‘vainly puffed up in their fleshly minds.’ From the outside it would seem that these people have it together, but the secret is that their religious observances, false humility and self-denial are only feeding their sinful desires.
Here is the problem with this type of comparison. When someone looks at the external to judge the internal, it is always wrong. We cannot see into the hearts of men, and cannot know for sure whether any other person is saved or bound for perdition. Only God can see into the hearts of men. Therefore the things we see can only be taken as an indicator and nothing more. The false teachers were trying to set up a system of works to show who was holy, and in their attempt they sinned and lead others to same.
Paul wants the Colossians to return to the liberty that they once had in Christ and to be free from both the ritual obedience to the Mosaic Law as well as the ordinances of men. This is what he tells the Galatians.
Galatians 5:1 (NKJV)
1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
So it is wrong whenever we would place ourselves under the rules of men to satisfy their requirements for what is righteous. For in Christ we have received liberty which we should not give away. Fleshy discipline will never yield what we hope it will. Our focus should not be on the flesh but Christ. Therefore Paul will begin the next section of scripture with the remedy to our needs:
Colossians 3:1 (NKJV)
1 If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.