Updated: May 20, 2020
by Gabe Bernal
Read Colossians 2:16-23
Reread it again.
When I was a teenager, I loved professional wrestling.
I know! I know! Judge me all you want. But I enjoyed it, it was the male equivalent to soap operas. Twists and turns, unlikely team up and betrayals. You never knew what to expect.
One of the most exciting matches that would happen in heated rivalry would be "No Disqualifications!" That was a big deal.
You see, even in pro wrestling, there were rules to a match. Sure they don't always seem to make sense, are enforced consistently, or can be ignored if the referee isn't looking, but there are rules.
But in a "No Disqualifications" match, the only rules that matter are the ones that determine the winner of the match. Pin or submission. Other than that anything goes!
These matches always lead to very entertaining ends to rivalries.
Most people, before they come to Christ, live their life like it's a "No Disqualifications" match. Anything goes!
They can do what they want and treat people how they want. YOLO!
The only certainty is it's going to end, so you better make it as entertaining as possible.
However, as soon as people come to Christ, all of a sudden their eyes are opened and hearts are softened. They then realise that ‘anything goes’ might not be the best way to live life, but it can actually be destructive and counterproductive.
But there is a problem for a lot of new Christians who seek to begin a new life. All of a sudden, there are all these rules they have to follow. Sure, some make sense, but others don't, and some people will try to tell them that they aren't a "real" Christian unless they do these things.
That leads us to the false gospel I want to highlight this week. It is a powerful false gospel, that is used to control and/or manipulate people:
For example: you're not a Christian or aren't getting into heaven unless you've been baptised.
You aren't a good Christian unless you go to church every Sunday, attend your small group every week, or serve in your children's ministry.
Sometimes we are told you aren't a good Christian if you don't read your Bible and say your prayers every day. And if you miss a day, you should be ashamed.
We've all be told things about rules to follow, events to attend, and disciplines to practice.
What have been some things you've been told you have to do in order to be a Christian or "good" Christian?
What is particularly strange is a lot of these rules we are told to follow are not bad in themselves. In fact, some of them can be tremendously life-giving.
But the problem comes when they are abused and used as a way to scare, manipulate or condemn people. They use it to increase power or control.
But Jesus was not about any of those things. He cared about the heart behind what we do. In fact, he said that we can follow the rules to the letter, but still have a black heart and not be living for or glorifying God.
In verse 16, Paul begins with “therefore," which we talked about is a connector to the previous thoughts he had. So "therefore", since Jesus won the victory on the cross, we are to "let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food or drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or sabbaths."
Let no one pass judgements in a matter related to legalism. Scottish theologian F.F. Bruce said on the issue, "It would be preposterous indeed for those who had reaped the benefit of Christ's victory to put themselves voluntarily under the control of the powers which he had conquered."
In other words, a life that is centred on Christ and his work on the cross has no room for legalism.
To give an example: under the Mosaic law, which many Jewish people at this time strictly adhered to, they were to keep a kosher diet and carefully observe the Sabbath. Now we as Christians are free to keep a kosher diet and observe the Sabbath if we want, but we cannot think that eating kosher or observing the Sabbath make us any closer to God. In addition, we can not judge or condemn any fellow saints who do not obey such laws.
While many Christians now do not observe many Mosaic laws anymore, there are a plethora of new observances or practices that Christians have created.
Now, let me reiterate, there is nothing wrong with observing some of these practices. In fact, some can help immensely in your walk with Christ. But it's when we make these things primary and essential to our faith where we get into trouble.
The Wrong Things
This is what makes legalism so tricky. But Paul echoes Jesus, from the Sermon on the Mount, that it's about the heart. Where is our heart when we practice something like Lent? Where is our heart when we get baptised? Where is our heart when we celebrate Christmas?
All three of those can be used in the wrong way and used for the wrong reasons. Paul knows this and warns the readers of how religion can be used to try and disqualify.
It's tricky because what Paul writes (on the surface) doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But if we put it in the context of who he is writing to, we can see what he is trying to teach them and what we can learn from the text.
There are three traps that false teachers of legalism will use to ensnare us into their teachings.
First is "asceticism" which is just a big word for self-denial. Abstinence from sensual pleasures of the world. This is something that is a hallmark of Buddhism, to achieve nirvana by renouncing material possessions and physical satisfaction.
And, at risk of starting to sound like a broken record, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. In Matthew 16:24, Jesus does say, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Jesus himself called us to give up our fleshly desires and selfish ambitions, but the problem here is the heart.
The false gospel that tempts people with self-denial uses passages like this and twists it into ‘you have to give up certain things... or else.’
You have to participate in Lent, or else you’re not a good Christian.
I don't own a TV, so that means I'm holier than you are and won't get brainwashed by the media.
Self-denial for the sake of self-denial does not glorify Christ, nor does it bring you into deep communion with him.
Before we move on, I have a question I want to pose to you.
What is the difference between the "asceticism" Paul is talking about here, and biblical self-denial?
Worship of Angels
Next is a weird one, the "worship of angels."
Is this literally what it means? Worshipping angels instead of Christ. Well, that's pretty straight-forward. Of course, that's bad. Next!
Hold on... Let's stop and think about the context about the Colossian heresy before we just take this at face value.
While I'm no expert in the Koine Greek, there is a clue given in other translations. The words "false humility" is sometimes used with the worship of angels. That in association with what we know about the Gnostic Christians of the time, we can make a confident assumption that this had to do with humility.
I've talked briefly about the Gnostic Christians before, and with this issue, we need to remember they thought God was unknowable and required special knowledge (that only a few had) to be able to make any steps closer to Him.
Because of this belief, many took the practice of worshipping angels rather than God because they believed they were not worthy to worship God. In addition, they saw it as a sign of humility.
And this is the trouble, we all can agree humility is important and vital. In humbling ourselves, we are thinking less of ourselves, and in doing so, we suppress that pride that everyone battles.
However, what these Colossian heretics were doing was thinking so low of themselves (or at least on the surface), they saw it as a good thing they were not worshipping the God of the universe.
They thought they were expressing humility in doing this. But instead, they were expressing a false humility and honouring and worshipping something other than the one true God. The only one worthy of worship.
Next is "going on in detail about visions" or as another translation puts it "making a parade of things which he as seen."
Again, we need to remember the Gnostic doctrine of "special knowledge" which they prided themselves on when they received a special vision which would open their eyes to more of God.
In essence, through these special visions, they were adding to God. Instead of going to Jesus as the source of the fullness of God, as Paul argues, the Gnostics would seek out enlightenment elsewhere, whether it was their own unique insight or the teachings of another religion.
Then, once they received their special knowledge or insight, they would adhere to this as gospel.
I know someone back in the States who has stated many times to me, and on her social media, that "there is a little truth in every religion." In following this belief, she began to cherry-pick beliefs from religions all over the world.
Yes, some of Jesus is in there. But it's Jesus plus this. Jesus plus that. More and more as time goes along, she keeps adding to what she believes.
If we have to add to Christ, we are actually subtracting from Him.
In other words, if we have to add to Christ, that means He is not enough. That means He is not sufficient. That means He is not supreme.
And if He is not those things, how can he be our Saviour? How can He be the Author of Creation? How can He be the King of Kings?
He is the image of the invisible God.
In Him dwells the fullness of God.
And if those things are true, trying to add anything to Christ is heresy.
What makes these things so dangerous are how close they are to the true gospel of Jesus that we know. They have the appearance of what we believe, but Paul warns us they are a wolf in sheep's clothing.
In verse 21, Paul repeats "Do not... Do not... Do not..." which is a perfect description of legalism and religion. But as he continues in verse 23, "these have indeed an appearance of wisdom... but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh."
Legalism gives the appearance of good and moral teaching.
Legalism gives the appearance of humility.
Legalism gives the appearance of devotion.
And even something like universalism, which I touched on in the last section, gives us the appearance of freedom.
But in the end, none of those things have power. None of them can transform a life. None of them will ever be enough.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, "he has put eternity into man's heart." That is why good and moral teaching will never be enough. That is why we will always have to make more rules. That is why universalists will always need to add more.
The only thing that can fill eternity is the fullness of God. Only Christ is sufficient enough to provide that.
In verse 19, Paul finishes off the ways people try to disqualify us by saying those people are "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."
We, as saints, are the Church. It's not the building, it's not the gathering either. The people, we are the body. The only thing that can nourish and knit us together is the Head.
Christ and Christ alone.
To finish up, I want to ask a question for you to think about as you mull over this:
How can understanding where others have departed aid our growth?
This is the seventh blog I've written on Colossians, and each week I mention deviations from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Each week I point out where the Enemy tries to trick up and pull us away from the fullness of God.
But the teacher in me feels like we would miss a golden opportunity if we don't stop for a moment and try and learn from these departures from the gospel. Not because the teaching itself has any value. But instead, because we can use those departures to see how Jesus can fill them and restore any brokenness or help us let go of any idols.
I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll repeat it.
Jesus is supreme. Only in Christ can we experience the fullness of God. Only through his saving work on the cross can we find peace, redemption, and life.
Does anything in particular stick out to you?
Are there any rules you may be following that you need to stop?
Once again - If there is anything during your discussion or journaling as you went through those questions that you found encouraging, let me know! I'm no expert, and this blog is definitely not exhaustive. I am learning as much as you and would love to hear how God spoke to you through this passage.