If you were driving along in the 1970s and saw a beaten up Volkswagen camper van plastered with ‘Make Love Not War’ bumper stickers, with a skinny, long-haired, tie-dyed, granny-glasses driver, you’d know you had met a hippie. If it were the 1990s and you saw a sun tanned and well-toned Ferrari driver wearing Gucci shoes, Amani suit and a Rolex watch, you’d know you were observing a yuppie. And the irony is, that if you looked closely, you might see that the 20 year old hippie had cut his hair, shaved his beard, was working out in the gym and become the forty year old Yuppie. And if you saw him today, you might find him in a queue in Waitrose, a balding, portly gentleman, in a tweed jacket, the driver of an eco-friendly bio-fuel Honda.
With sufficient time, money or effort, most people have a tendency to identify with a clan or a cause; we like to know who is inside and who is out. So we adopt identity markers—visible practices of dress, vocabulary, material acquisition or behaviour that distinguish who is inside the group from those on the outside. Sometimes these are subtle, sometimes very in your face. In the first century a disproportionate amount of attention within the Jewish community was devoted to dietary rules, Sabbath-keeping and circumcision. This created much of the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. It continued after Pentecost between the Church, Rabbinic Judaism and the Pagan religions.
In Christ, the kingdom of God was beginning to break into human history in a new way. The authentic identity markers of God’s people would now be a circumcised heart motivation and a diet of justice and love, and the removal of barriers, not rules and regulations. Henri Nouwen wrote that it is very hard to stop being the prodigal son without turning into the elder brother. Any time people are not experiencing authentic transformation they will inevitably be drawn toward some kind of faith characterized by boundary markers. The boundary markers change from century to century, but they all reinforce a false sense of security and superiority in the desire to distinguish who is in and who is not. So far in the Letter to the Colossians we have explored the core truths of Christianity. Jesus Christ is all sufficient. Jesus is indeed God in human form. Jesus is our Lord and Saviour, our Redeemer and friend. Having presented the truth of the Christian gospel, Paul now challenges the heresies that would deny it. In Colossians 2:16-23 we encounter some good looking, sweet smelling, very convincing… false teachers. They were advocating boundary or identity markers that on the surface appear deeply spiritual but which were actually heretical. Beware, God says, Beware of three perils – legalism, mysticism and asceticism.
1. Let no one Judge you with their Legalism
2. Let no one Disqualify you with their Mysticism
3. Let no one Enslave you with their Asceticism
1. Let no one Judge you with their Legalism
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)
1.1 The Basis of our Freedom
Notice first of all, the basis of our freedom. The passage begins, “Therefore” which takes us back to what we learnt last week.
“He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us” (Colossians 2:13-14a)
At the cross of Jesus, our debts have been wiped out; The charges against us have been removed; and the powers of evil have been disarmed. This is our joy and peace. Therefore, says Paul, don’t let anyone judge you by what you eat, drink or celebrate. The person who judges you because you don’t match up to their expectations is really judging Jesus Christ. Never let anyone take away the peace that comes from knowing Jesus has set you free. Why? Because although they may appear to be spiritual they are in fact in bondage.
1.2 The Bondage of Legalism
Legalism is simply defining our spirituality on the basis of our ability to keep man-made rules, Ecclesiastical regulations and even God given laws. In Colossae they graded Christians on their diet and drinking habits – were they carnivores or vegetarians? Were they wine bibbers or tee-totals’? They also graded Christians by how often they attended services and prayer meetings. Their calendar was packed with feasts and fasts. The phrase, “religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” makes a useful summary of annual, monthly and weekly celebrations. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul insists,
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Amen? And yet the Reformed churches of Europe, including the Church of England, who rejected the legalism of Judaism and the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, still found it hard to resist the temptation to copy them. Check out the 1662 Anglican Prayer Book. If we did things properly as an Anglican Church, besides Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost, we should also observe 31 feasts, 16 fasts, 40 days of Lent, 3 Ember days, 3 Rogation days, 27 Greater saints days, 80 Lesser saints days as well as any local commemorations. And we have not even got onto whether clergy should wear collars and robes and if so, which ones… Just a little excessive you might think? In Colossae the legalists were saying precisely the same thing. “It is not enough to know Christ, you must follow these rules and holy days too.” That is the straight jacket of legalism. Thankfully, God reminds us of
1.3 The Blessings of Grace
“These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:17)
Ultimately what matters is not what others think but what Jesus says. Don’t let anyone judge you by their legalism. Don’t let anyone define your spirituality by their set of rules. Don’t let anyone hassle you over how many times you attend church services. Why, because these are only a shadow. What is a shadow? A shadow is an area blacked out because something has got in the way of the light. Don’t let anything or anyone come between you and Jesus. Let no one judge you with their legalism.
2. Let no one disqualify you with their Mysticism
“Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. (Colossians 2:18)
The word ‘disqualify’ is an athletic term. It describes how an umpire might disqualify a contestant if they have broken the rules. It is one thing to have the Lord discipline us to make us fitter spiritually, it’s another to let people disqualify us because we don’t play by their rules. And that is what they were doing in Colossae with their mystical experiences. What is mysticism? Mysticism is the belief in a higher or deeper religious experience confirmed by personal, subjective intuition. In this they delighted.
2.1 They Delighted in their Humility
The heretics were claiming “We have experienced a higher, broader, deeper and more intimate mystical union with God. We have obtained a humility and piety unlike anything you have yet experienced.” It was a little like someone saying “You don’t know what a privilege it is for you to have us here.” They were like Uriah Heep in the Charles Dicken’s novel, ‘David Copperfield’ who says “I is umble” Someone put it like this:
“Humility, the sweetest, loveliest flower that blossomed in Eden, and the first that died, has rarely blossomed since on mortal soil. It is so frail, so delicate a thing. Tis gone if it but look upon itself; and he who ventures to esteem it his, proves by that single thought he has it not.”
They delighted in their humility but it was nothing but ugly pride.
2.2 They Worshipped Angels
This may sound a little obscure. It could mean they worshipped through angels or like angels. Whatever is meant, their spirituality was bound up with supernatural beings. Even today, some Christians believe the departed saints or Mary can help mediate for them and give special access to God, or relief from suffering or assurance of heaven. Calling it ‘devotion’ doesn’t make it any less idolatrous. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). Any suggestion that we can access God the Father through saints or angels is not devotion but disobedience. We need no other mediator. They delighted in their humility and they worshipped angels.
2.3 They Boasted of Visions
Boasting of visions is a form of spiritual intimidation. Paul says, “Don’t let them intimidate you into thinking you are second class Christians just because you have not shared their mystical experiences. It tempting to think there might be a short cut to revelation and insight and maturity other than by prayer and Bible study, faith and obedience, but there isn’t. There isn’t. How much easier it would be if God would just tell me what to do with my life through a direct audible voice. You can see how tempting these mystics claiming an inside track were. Paul will have none of it!
“They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” (Colossians 2:18-19)
Let no one judge you with their legalism.
Let no one disqualify you with their Mysticism.
3. Let no one Enslave you with their Asceticism
What is an ascetic? Someone who lives a life of self-denial as the way to grow in wisdom and maturity. You see them on the TV – other worldly, head shaved, bare foot, a simple robe, no earthly possessions. And celebrities will pay vast sums of money to be enlightened by them. The church has been intimidated by their false notion of spirituality for centuries. Asceticism was very big in the Middle Ages as were the monasteries and convents. Wearing a shirt made of hair next to the skin, living alone far away from civilisation, sleeping on a hard bed, not speaking for days, going without food and water, these were some of the disciplines people used to tame their bodies and so somehow become more spiritual. What does Paul say? This is, he insists,
3.1 The Perversion of Self Denial
“Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? (Colossians 2:20-21)
Athanasius of Alexandria was one of the leading Church Fathers in the 4th Century. He boasted of the devotion of a colleague called Anthony who never changed his clothes or washed for apparently that was the thing to do if you wanted to be really spiritual. Just don’t tell your teenagers. And a century later asceticism was taken to new heights, literally, by Simeon Stylites. According to Wikipedia (!) having tried various forms of asceticism, in order to get away from the ever increasing number of people who frequently came to him for prayers and advice, leaving him little if any time for his private austerities, Simeon discovered a pillar which had survived amongst ruins, formed a small platform at the top, and upon this determined to live out his life.
For sustenance small boys from the village would climb up the pillar and pass him small parcels of flat bread and goats’ milk. This first pillar was little more than four meters high, but his well-wishers subsequently replaced it with others, the last in the series being over 15 meters from the ground. At the top of the pillar was a platform about one square meter. Apparently, Simeon would not allow any woman to come near his pillar, not even his own mother. Now I am not questioning the value of self denial to show the body who is in charge. While there may be a connection between physical discipline and health, there is no such inevitable connection between physical discipline and holiness. The perversion of self denial.
3.2 The Peril of Self Achievement
“These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.” (Colossians 2:22)
Why place so much value on something that will perish? God does not require us all to live in poverty. If that is where God calls you for a season, and he gives you peace that it is His plan for you, then that is glorious but don’t impose it on others. And if God chooses to give you an abundance of material possessions as he did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Daniel and Job, then may God bless you with wisdom, because with them comes greater responsibility. It is not more spiritual to be poor or wealthy, to own a house or just rent, to have a car or go without.
What matters is what we do with that which God has entrusted to us. Spirituality is not Christ plus anything. All the extras we throw in that sound super-spiritual will one day perish. The perversion of self-denial, the perishing of self achievement and finally,
3.3 The Preoccupation with Self Glory
“Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:23)
Mystics and ascetics stand out, by their appearance or their practices. It never ceases to amaze me how well educated Westerners will flock to hear an ascetic Eastern guru tell them how they too can find inner peace. While young people in the East crave Western clothing, music, food and material lifestyle thinking fulfilment will be found here. If you are any doubt, look at any statue of Buddah and tell me what you see. A contented smile on a plump face, caught up in his own private world, his eyes closed to the plight of a suffering world around him.
Charles Spurgeon, the famous 19th Century Baptist preacher, came to the same conclusion.
“I have found, in my own spiritual life, that the more rules I lay down for myself, the more sins I commit. The habit of regular morning and evening prayer is one which is indispensable to a believer’s life, but the prescribing of the length of prayer, and the constrained remembrance of so many persons and subjects, may engender bondage, and strangle prayer rather than assist it.”
The power of the Lord Jesus Christ does more than merely restrain the desires of the body. He puts new desires in us. By His Spirit, he has given us a new nature, his nature, his godly desires and ambitions. We do not need laws on the outside to control our passions and appetites, because we have a new life and new motivation on the inside. “harsh treatment of the body… lack(s) any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” The answer to legalism is trust in Jesus. The answer to mysticism in fellowship with Jesus. The answer to asceticism is our security in Jesus.
As we saw last week, “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” (Colossians 2:9-10), so don’t let anyone, I means anyone, however sincere or apparently spiritual, lead you back into the shadows and into bondage. “…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36). Lets pray.