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Apr 8 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

Colossians 2:18-23 Chuck Smith Jr., April 25, 2010

Colossians 2:18-23

Have you ever seen a ball game where the umpire or referee that snatched victory from your team? I’ve seen such bad calls, I thought the ref was playing for other side.

A bad call or unfair ruling that results in having a win taken from you is what Paul had in mind when he said, “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize” in verse 18, only the stakes in this game are much higher. The word translated “defrauding” is derived from a root for the judge at athletic contests and for the prize that went to the winner. In the form that Paul uses, it means to “decide or judge against.”

This is the fourth warning in this chapter that Paul has highlighted with the words “no one” (see vv. 4, 8, & 16). It is as if he told them, “Look, you live in a dangerous neighborhood. So make sure that you lock your doors and keep your valuables well hidden.”

Jesus described other peo0ple who had come before him, posing as the Messiah, as “thieves & robbers.” He described himself as the Good Shepherd and the thieves were trying to steal his sheep (Jn. 10:1, 8-10). Paul had seen this sort of soul thief go after other Christians and even entire churches, it it broke his heart. “I am amazed,” he told the Galatians “that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel” (Ga. 1:6). Unfortunately, it happens.

That the heart of a believer could be stolen away by a “different gospel” is  just one way of looking at the spiritual danger posed by soul-thieves. From another point of view, the believer is the one who gets ripped off. We stand to lose our nearness to God, freedom from religious slavery and illusions, the “peace that surpasses understanding,” our “joy inexpressible and full of glory”–in a word, Jesus. If we drift from him, we lose all that there is to be experienced and enjoyed in him (e.g., Co. 1:15-20; 2:9-10).

Seeing that we have so much to lose, why do some Christians glide away from faith in Christ to self-destructive beliefs?

  • The most frequent cause, I believe, is that they have been seduced by someone. They are taken with the charisma and charm of a gifted speaker who combines humor, sentimental stories, motivational aphorisms, and hooks their audience with promises of fulfilled dreams or desires.
  • Almost as frequently, Christians are driven from their initial faith in Jesus by the force of the presentation with which they are assailed. Some believers are too impressed by someone who can quote a string of Bible verses (the time-worn proverb is true nonetheless, that a person can prove anything from the Bible).

So, one last time, Paul addresses the dangers that had entered Colossae and threatened the believers life in God. Paul summarized the teachings of twisted religion to two dangers. What were they?

Verses 18-19, The Promises of Magical Mysticism

I probably need to clarify that mysticism is not a problem in itself, if what we are talking about is a conscious and direct encounter with God. The people who have made the most progress in Christian spirituality are often referred to as mystics and their goal has been to see the face of God–not literally, but in the sense of having a real and dynamic experience of God.

The mysticism that had reached Colossae had roots in Oriental mystery cults in which the devotees were initiated from one level of enlightenment to another through sacred rituals. Being a Roman city located in Asia Minor, Colossae was a crossroad where Eastern mysticism intersected with Greek religion and rationalism. Add the seasoning of a large Jewish population in that general area and you have a very challenging environment for the new Christian church that had been planted there.

Paul pointed out three characterizes of the magical mysticism that concerned him:

  1. “Delighting in self-abasement.” The word that is translated self-abasementmeans nothing more than humility and occurs as a positive virtue in chapter 3. But humility is a virtue only when it practiced in the pursuit of a higher goal. There is no value in being humble just for the sake of being humble, and there are times when it can even work against the will of God (e.g., 1 Sa. 10:20-23). To take pleasure in humility, as if it could enhance a person’s spirituality in itself, results in all kinds of nonsense (e.g., 1 Ki. 18:25-28). This sort of thing belongs in the category of religious masochism, which entails either a psychological delusion that one needs to be punished, a false and servile sense of reverence toward God, a  mistaken idea of human degradation or depravity, or a false belief about the body or the self.
  2. The “worship of angels” may refer to people offering worship to angels because of their superior knowledge and power or because it was believed that they influenced cosmic forces (Re. 22:8-9, although there is no other record of this sort of thing happening in that part of the world at that time) or it could mean that humans could join in worship with the angels. Although this seems odd or far-fetched, I had an experience a few years ago with a pastor of large Charismatic church and one of our colleagues. The pastor said to our colleague, “Tell him.” He then told me this elaborate story that at one point included him hearing “heavenly music.” The Charismatic pastor nodded and said, “Me too. It’s the angels singing.” The impression I got from them was that they had moved into new and exotic spiritual ream. If I wanted same experience, I would have to be initiated into it. (I didn’t bite, simply because I wasn’t interested in angel music–it sounded sort of sissy-boy to me.) So maybe something like that was being taught in Colossae.
  3. “Taking his stand” translates a word that means “to enter” and it was inscribed on at least one temple in reference to entering a sacred place where worshipers would be initiated into mysteries (visions). It is amazing how many Christians will swallow the teaching (and back their credulity with donations) of speakers who promise transcendent spiritual experiences or visions through special initiations into the Holy Spirit. Amazing, and incredibly sad. For the gift of God is free, cannot be obtained with money (Acts 8:20), and should never be systematized or merchandised.

Paul describes the people who promote these teachings as “inflated without cause.” That is such a perfect description of spiritual teachers who think they have got ahold of a truth that no one else knows. Their ego swells up like a balloon (1 Co. 8:1). According to Paul, they have no good reason to be conceited. But if there’s no “cause” for conceit, what has done the inflating? The answer: “his fleshly mind,” which as you may know by now, is what I refer to as the sarchotic mind (from sarx the Greek word for “flesh”).

For believers to grab hold of this snake oil offers, they must let go of Jesus “from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments.”  The metaphor of Christ as the head of the body recalls 1:17-18 and 2:10. What Paul is emphasizing here is each believers individual connection to Jesus–a connection that is beautifully illustrated in Jesus’ analogy of the vine and the branches in John 15).

When Paul talks about Jesus as the head of the church and the church as his body in the letter to the Ephesians, his emphasis is on the believers’ relationship to each other (Ep. 4:4-13). But here he wants the Colossians to understand how vital it is for them to be connected directly to Christ, and if they were to lose that, they would be cut off from the supply of God’s Spirit that keeps us alive. As Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).

What do we experience in Jesus? We grow “with a growth which is from God.” There was no way that what the hucksters of magical mysticism were selling could compare with what the believer has in Jesus Christ; namely, a divinely energized growth in God.

Verses 20-23, The Oppression of Religious Rigidity

In chapter 2, Paul told the Colossians that they had “been buried” with Jesus in baptism (v. 12). The significance of that statement is that death changes our relationship to things. Old obligations are no longer binding, old temptations are no longer compelling, and the “elementary principles” that used to control our religious thinking are no  longer applicable.

So Paul wants to know why the Colossians would act “as if living in the world”–that is, as if they belonged to the world or their lives were still defined by it. This is something we really need to grasp with all our heart and mind.

This last week I received an email from young man that illustrates why Paul was concerned about Christians who submitted themselves to decrees as if living in the world. Here is a partial quote from his email:

In an instant it hits: What if my faith that I’ve believed all my life is just a hopeful fantasy? Just some elaborate coping mechanism to shield myself from the fact that when I breathe my last breath that’s it. No heaven, no hell, no benevolent Creator with loving arms open wide – just black . . .

This question is tied to the feeling that there really is no purpose to life. What am I? Just another organism; I’m here, I’ll be gone, and that’s it. Why was I born? It doesn’t matter. Why do I have consciousness? Doesn’t matter. Why do I wonder? Doesn’t matter . . .

These thoughts and feelings fill me with such a strong fear and total panic that it hurts physically. And it comes on me quickly, in the time it takes for a thought to cross my mind.

Do you ever experience this? Is this normal? Do I need to be concerned with this?

 All I’ll say about his email is that it is a classic consequence of living in our culture at this time. Since the time of the Enlightenment, the thought leaders of western civilization have traded faith in God for human reason as the reliable guide for entering the future. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, intellectuals in Europe equated faith with superstition and the past ages of human history. Eventually the influence of the rationalism of philosophy and empirical science took over every educational, political, and media institution (even a few seminaries and churches).

Later on, artists and philosophers began to question the ultimate authority of reason and science. But they did not stop there. They questioned whether humans could know anything, seeing that the only way we  can hold and communicate our ideas about the universe is with words. What are ideas? They are nothing but a particular kind of activity that goes on in our brain cells. What are words? They are merely mental symbols. For example, there is no real connection between a word and the object it represents–there is no part of a tree in the word “tree.” It is just a sound we make, an arrangement of letters.

So by the middle of the twentieth century, artists and intellectuals were preaching the new doctrine, that everythinghumans think they know or understand is purely an invention, a mental model with no relationship to reality. If all we have to represent reality is language, then all we have is an artificial universe inside our heads. We cannot be certain of anything outside of ourselves, because it comes to us through sense perception and is translated into neural impulses in our brain that, in turn, creates these mental models. Each one of us, so the doctrine goes, lives in our own private, inner world of self-made constructs.

This has also been applied to our sense of being a unique and solid “self.” Experts from various disciplines tell us that there is no “me” or “I” that exists separate from my body and the functions of my brain. Again, the doctrine that now permeates western civilization–including every newspaper and magazine we read, every television program we watch, every song listen too, and so on–is that every object, every relationship, every belief is a simulation, an invention of the mind, cut off from reality, and it is hopeless to try to connect with reality.

Living in North American society, under the pressure of the prevailing worldview, we can expect these dominant presuppositions to close in on us once in awhile. That is what creeps up on the young man who sent me the email. All day long he trudges through a world that tells him everything is make believe. So from time to time in a vulnerable moment, perhaps when he is drifting off to sleep, the thought hits him like a jolt of electricity that shoots panic through his body, “What if my relationship with God, to whom I have dedicated my life and around whom everything I do revolves, is not real? What if religion is nothing but make believe?

Of course, the biblical antidote to this thinking and the fear it evokes is simply this: Do not let culture define reality for you. That is what Paul meant when he said, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Ro. 12:2). The Bible not only insists that we reject the world’s transient views of reality, but it also gives us clear examples of people who did this very thing and brought glory to God and salvation to his people through their resistance to the influence of their prevailing culture.

Paul’s concern for the Colossians, however, was not only the influence of Hellenistic thinking, but also the influence of a religious subculture. Here we find a different kind of influence that consists of “decrees” (the same word that appears in v. 14). As we saw in a previous study, these decrees are a list of all the things a person would have to do in order to be perfect before God.

For those of us who sincerely want to live for God and are sensitive to the ways that we fall short, it is easy to find fault with ourselves. We cannot count the number of opportunities we miss in a single day to perform some “Christian” act of devotion to God or kindness to others. In fact, it is entirely possible to become obsessed with our failures, so that our spiritual life diminishes to a constant groveling before God under the burden of self-judgment.

But these decrees are exactly what Paul had said God nailed to cross (v. 14). God now tells us, “Here are all the requirements religion could ever place on you, all of them paid in full. Now come to Me and enjoy Me.”

Repentance in the New Testament does not mean that we must wallow in regret for what we have done wrong and then promise that from now on we will try harder. But, like the prodigal son, it means coming our senses, getting up, and returning to our Father. There is more joy–and a heavenly joy–than sorrow in true repentance (Lk. 15:7, 10).

Paul characterizes the decrees as negative prohibitions, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” These things that can be handled, tasted and touched do not have any inherent, eternal value. Instead, they are all “destined to perish”–that is, to wear out with use, to be “consumed.”

People who live strict lives of negative asceticism “have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom,” at least in terms of religious masochism.

I have exercised in small (and serious!) gyms and weight rooms all across our nation, and could not tell you the number of times I’ve seen a sign hanging on a wall that says, “No pain, no gain.” That is simply not true. If while you are working out, you begin to feel pain, then you’re doing something wrong.

There are Christians who have adopted the same wrong idea about their life in God. They think that if they create pain for themselves when they pray and worship, study the Scriptures, or serve other people, then they are making spiritual progress and headed for sainthood. But Paul says that the wisdom of “self-abasement and severe treatment of the body” is only in appearance, because the truth is, they “are of no value against fleshly indulgence,” or I would say, you can inflict pain on yourself to intensify your religious commitment and still be indulging your sarchotic self. In fact, the sarchotic self loves this stuff.

There is another way to think about the legitimate pain that may come to us because of our faith in Christ, which we could call a positive asceticism (or self-denial). That would be, that sometimes we must give up something–a bad habit, a meal, a prejudice, etc.–so that we can take up something better.

Too frequently Christians allow themselves to define their relationship with God according to what they destroy, abandon, or remove from their lives. They topple idols, don’t party, don’t run with the wrong crowd, give up gambling and swearing, and so on. But that is not the best expression of Christianity, which when it is renewed in the likeness of its Creator is itself creative.

I would like to recommend a positive asceticism, where if we give up going to the movies, we make our own movie (see, for instance, on my Facebook page, “Why I Killed My Brother,” starring three of my grandchildren, directed by my son-in-law, and produced by my oldest daughter). If we are going to give up one thing, let’s take up something else, something that is beautiful, good, enlightening, and soul-enriching. Rather than sulk around in the emptiness of self-pittying self-denial, let’s through ourselves into forms of recreation that involves re-creation to nurture body, mind and soul.

One last look at the spiritual threat to the Colossian Christians

The Colossians’ walk with Jesus was threatened by magical mysticism, on one hand, and rigid religion on the other. No other than Jesus (which is obvious), what else is missing from these systems?

Eventually you would see it, so I’ll just tell you: Love. Where is the love for God and love for others? The followers of both systems become totally engrossed in themselves, their egos, and their spiritual empowerment. They may compare themselves to others who are less enlightened or less (self-)righteous and they may compete with others, but they certainly have not built their lives on loving others.

And that makes me pause and wonder why love seems to have fallen out of so many of our Christian church cultures. Not that love has fallen out of our vocabulary, for we still sing about it and we have turned “unconditional love” into a cliche. But it disturbs me to see the way Christians treat each other (I could list several blog sites as examples), people outside the church, and just about anyone else who disagrees with them even over the slightest issue.

We have been influenced by a loveless world more than we realize. Having stepped into society to wage war on too many fronts, we have forgotten the greatest commandments. For some reason, we thought it was our job to rescue God and prevent him from being thrown out of our society, and the only weapon we have on hand is “doctrine”–which when you think about it is a copy of a copy. In the meantime, we have let Jesus slip through our fingers.

Love forgives, love embraces, love heals, and love is creative. It is not too great a stretch to say that the Colossians could have avoided falling prey to magical mysticism or rigid religion if they just kept the priority of love before their eyes at all times. For “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn. 4:16).

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