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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 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, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
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—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These 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.
Colossians 2:16-23 ESV
Within these final verses of chapter two, Paul completes the thought that he began in verses 8-15. The main intention of Paul’s letter is to keep the Colossians from being taken captive by philosophies that are devoid of Christ. Thus, in order to prevent them from being deceived by plausible arguments, Paul explained the forgiveness and triumph that is found in Christ and His work upon the cross. All of this is to say that true religion is only found in Jesus, and all other forms of religion are meaningless and empty deceits. Having explained to us the true religion of Christ, Paul now addresses the forms of false religion that we create.
THE EMPTINESS OF ASCETICISM // VERSES 16-19
Because the present day is becoming increasingly secular, a common argument often used against religion is that it is inherently judgmental. Because of the standards and practices of most religions, it is easy for non-religious people to feel judged when they do not observe those same principles and values. As Christians, our default may be to deny the notion of religion being judgmental; however, notice that Paul acknowledged the judgmental-ism of religion. The apostle affirms that man-made religions do indeed pass sweeping judgments. However, Paul is writing so that the Colossians (and us) will not be taken captive by this form of religious duty. Jesus’ atoning death purchased our freedom from the legal demands of religious observance. Thus, the Old Testament law is no longer a burden for the follower of Christ. Throughout the first five books of the Bible, there are a plethora of laws concerning what God’s people should and should not eat, what days they should observe as holidays, what festivals they were supposed to celebrate. All in all, those laws were impossible to obey perfectly, and in fact, that was their very purpose. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The law shows us how desperately we needed grace by revealing our sin.
Obviously, the heretical teaching surrounding the Colossians had some significant Jewish influence. These false teachers were demanding that the Christians submit to the entire set of laws in the Old Testament. Paul is obviously against this teaching, but how is he able essentially to say that there are some parts of the Bible that Christians do not need to obey? Does this mean that the Old Testament is devalued?
The apostle argues that the primary purpose of the law is point towards Christ. They are the shadow, but Christ is the substance. Christ, therefore, was always the goal of the Old Testament. So Paul is saying that placing our confidence in the law without Christ is empty and void of meaning because the fullness is found only in Christ. “The implication is clear: Christ fulfills all Jewish sacrifices and hopes. The future yearned for by the prophets has broken into the present” (Garland, 175).
This means that the Old Testament food and ceremonial laws are not considered invalid today even though they are no longer practiced because their primary was to always point to Christ. For followers of Christ, returning the legalism of the Old Testament is like being content with shadows instead of the real thing.
Paul then begins verse 18 with a similar refrain to verse 16: let no one. Yet now the apostle is diving further than simple judgmental attitudes. Now he is urging the Colossians to let no one disqualify them. Disqualified here carries the connotation of cheating someone out of their reward or prize. Thus, Paul is concerned that others will cheat the Colossians out of their reward, which is Christ.
Being cheated out of the promises that are found in Christ is a terrifying concept, so let us ask how the Colossians were going to be disqualified. Paul cites three means by which we might be disqualified in the faith.
First, the Colossians were being told to practice asceticism and angel worship. Asceticism derives from the Greek word for training or exercise. It is the promotion of self-denial or abstinence from food, drink, sex, sleep, comfort, etc. Though some of those things may sound good and holy (after all, Christians should practice such disciplines as regular fasting), the ascetic does them from an impure heart. Perhaps the best way to describe asceticism is prideful humility or false humility. It is the attitude of saying, “Look how holy I am. I went forty days without food, just like Jesus.” Ultimately, though trying desperately to show humility, asceticism merely grows prideful arrogance.
Closely tied here with asceticism is the worship of angels. Paul does not give any details for how the angels were being worshipped, and there are many theories of what that entailed. Some suggest that the heretics worshipped the angels as deities (this seems to me the most obvious and, therefore, most likely interpretation). Others suggest that the Gnostics were attempting to enter into angelic worship (meaning they were seeking heavenly and spiritual worship experiences). Others still note that Greek word for worship “can be used to denote invocation or conjuration” (Garland, 178). Regardless of whether they were sacrificing to angels, trying to join with them, or summon them, Paul’s point is that they were valuing too highly creatures that were made God instead of the Creator Himself. After all, angels are “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14).
Second, the false teachers were going on about visions. Following the vain spirituality of angel worship, Paul now claims that they boasted in visions that they saw. My first question when reading about their visions is whether or not the visions were real; however, Paul is not concerned about the reality of their visions. They may have been pure fabrications in order to sound more spiritual, caused by hallucinogenic drugs, or actual demonic visions. Regardless of the source of the visions, the problem is that they were looking for the next spiritual high instead of coming to Christ.
Third, false humility, angel worship, and boasting of visions leads to a prideful, purposeless, worldly mind. All of these spiritual experiences create proud hearts rather than the humble spirit that we see throughout Scripture. When Job encountered firsthand the might of God, he repented “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). After beholding a miracle of Christ, Peter bowed down and proclaimed, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). When the prophet Isaiah was taken into the presence of God, he cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isa. 6:5)! Thus, coming into contact with God is always a humbling experience. Viewing the holiness of God makes us acutely aware of our sinfulness. We can conclude, therefore, that the spiritual experiences of these false teachers were counterfeit because they caused pride and boasting instead.
True worship always humbles a person. The mind is awed by the greatness of God; the heart is filled with love for God; and the will is submitted to the purpose God has for the life. The Gnostics, however, were interested primarily in “deeper spiritual knowledge,” and they ignored God’s truth. Their “inner secrets” gave them big heads, but not burning hearts or submissive wills. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1, niv).Wiersbe, 130.
As we read previously, Christ “is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). Thus, the ultimate means of disqualification is not holding fast to Christ. Nourishment, love, and growth only come through Christ. Paul means for us to understand that religion without Christ is like a body without a head; both are dead. True and living religion is only found in Christ. Therefore, we must hold fast to Him. We must lay hold of Christ with a death grip, clinging to Him as though our lives depended on it (and they do!).
ONLY AN APPEARANCE OF WISDOM // VERSES 20-22
Now Paul asks the grand question of this section of text: if we have died to the world with Christ, why would still live by worldly regulations? By the death of Christ, we are no longer subject to all of the regulations of food and other such things. Just as Paul wrote in verse 12 that we have died to sin and been raised to new life with Christ, so he now makes it clear that we have died to the elementary principles of the world.
In order for us to understand the truth of freedom in Christ from ascetic religion, let us turn to the great regulations of the Old Testament. Let me be clear, because in verse 22 Paul writes according to human precepts and teachings, he is clearly not speaking about the God-given Mosaic Law. However, the Mosaic Law has many similarities with these regulations that Paul is discussing, so if we show how Christ has liberated us from the Mosaic Law, how much more will Christ have freed us from man-made regulations!
Romans 7:1-6 explains how death is the end of legal contracts. The example use is marriage, a lawful union between a man and woman. “For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he live, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress” (Rom. 7:2-3). Likewise, with the Mosaic Law, by dying with Christ, we have been set free from the burden of attempting to obtaining our justification through it. Because of our freedom in Christ, we are able to happily eat bacon and lobster as we love God and our neighbors through the strength of the indwelling Spirit.
The whole point of observing religious commands is to grow in righteousness, to be good enough to earn favor with God. We know that not even the Mosaic Law was able to achieve that goal; instead, the Law only brought greater knowledge of sin. In Christ, we are free from this vain striving because Jesus has already made us righteous. Our Lord has already canceled the record of our debt by His death on the cross. There is nothing left for us to do in order to earn God’s favor. That is the great freedom of Christianity. Nothing that we do can change our stance with God, for better or worse, because Jesus did all the work. Now when we obey religious commands, we do it out of gratitude rather than obligation.
Verse 23 is by far one of my favorite verses of Colossians. The simplicity with which Paul sums up the problem of self-made religions is astounding. Man-made religions appear to be very wise, but ultimately, they fail to do the very thing for which they were intended. Self-made religion and asceticism are supposed to stop the “indulgence of the flesh,” but they simple do not. These super-spiritual teachers became puffed up with pride (one of the greatest of sins). Their plan backfires making them more sinful, not less. The only solution for destroying sin is the atoning work of Jesus. There is no other hope, except by the blood of the God-man poured out in the place of sinners like us.
The aim of all man-made religions is favor with God. By observing numerous regulations, people seek to purchase God’s approval through their good deeds. However, this is vanity, an empty deceit, and a meaningless pursuit of the wind. The simple truth is that we are never good enough to get to God. There is no amount of dietary regulation, abstinence of pleasure, or spiritual experiences that can cleanse the deep stains left by sin. Only the death and resurrection of Christ is sufficient to cancel our debt to God.