Occasionally in Bible reading a hard-to-understand passage confronts us. One that seems irrelevant and inapplicable. That’s Colossians 2:16-23. In it, Paul gives only snippets of the false philosophy he’s countering. And what we see doesn’t seem to apply at all to us today.
Here’s the entire text. Comments follow.
“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings.”
Colossae was a significant city from the 5th century onward, notable for its angel-worship cult. By Paul’s day, the city’s prime had passed. Indeed, we’d probably be ignorant of its existence, but for Epaphras taking the gospel and planting a church there. That church is now in danger of being taken captive by a false, Christ-diminishing philosophy. This text gives us clues to its components–but clues only. This much we know . . .
The Colossae false-philosophers claim they can reach a higher spiritual plane apart from Jesus Christ. To achieve this one must practice severe asceticism. This includes abstinence from strong drink and certain kinds of food. Observance of religious festivals and holy days is also necessary. A person must deny himself basic bodily needs and endure other forms of physical mistreatment. If one proved diligent and faithful–and worshiped angels–he could expect religious visions not accessible to an ordinary believer. This identified one as spiritually superior.
Paul responds: don’t let anyone condemn you about food or drink or festival observances . . .don’t let anyone disqualify you because you don’t practice self-abasement or worship angels or have visions . . . don’t submit to worldly regulations that come from men, not God . . . hold fast to the head from whom the whole body grows with growth from God . . . remember with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe.
We could dig more deeply. But, since we’re not similarly threatened, why do it? Paul’s argument here and throughout this letter is plain: in Christ you have all of God; don’t be intimidated to think you need something else.
One day I happened to briefly discuss church with a woman who taught at the same school as I. I remember nothing about our talk except she felt she had to attend her Roman Catholic church that Sunday–either to compensate for her sins or to add merit to her good works.
In “The DaVinci Code” Movie (2006) Silas belonged to a religious sect that practiced severe self-flagellation to curb his sinful temptations and make himself acceptable to God. His body bore the grotesque scars of his religion.
After 44 years of pastoral ministry, I sometimes find myself thinking, “God owes me healing because I served him all those years. (Truth is, I was going nowhere when he called me. And his call made my life more meaningful than it could have been otherwise.)
Church attendance merits nothing. Body-beating doesn’t make us holier. God owes us nothing for our service. All smell like human nature rising up to accomplish something with God.
The Colossian false-philosophies were captivating for that very reason. Heightened spirituality was possible through learning their secret knowledge. Its glaring error: it bypassed Christ.
This is why Paul wrote: “For in Christ the fullness of deity lives in a human body . . . ” If God’s fullness lives in Christ, there’s nothing to be had of God apart from Christ. “And you have fullness through your union with Christ.” Secret spiritual knowledge doesn’t gain heightened awareness of God. Church attendance doesn’t merit more of God. Self-flagellation doesn’t make us holier for God. Service doesn’t get us good treatment from God.
We have all we will need and all we could want of God in Christ. We have been made complete in him.