Colossians 2:16-23 - "Believer, Beware!"

Author: The BFC Gadfly
January 05, 2020

Intro: “Syncretism.”  It’s a big word you may not be familiar with.  Syncretism is “the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.”  Syncretism occurs when well-meaning Christians adopt teachings or practices outside the Christian faith in an attempt to become more relevant to outsiders, or to satisfy a hunger within their own souls for something more.  Something more of holiness.  Something more of Christ-likeness.  Something more of authenticity in Christ.  The temptation for those who long to make progress in spirituality, (and who doesn’t want to do that?), our desire for progress can lead us to follow, unknowingly, dangerous pathways; pathways that lead us away from the Bible’s clear teaching and into mere human ways of creating a perceived righteousness.  Little by little we can be lured away from the freedom Christ won for us on the cross; slowly, gradually, we can slip back into a yoke of legalistic slavery.[1]  These pathways seem right.  They seem to promise increased power over the fallen nature.  Greater evidence of genuine conversion.  Perhaps, in our worst moments, the thought of increased prestige in our spiritual circle crosses our mind.  What are these pathways?  Our text deals with three of the most dangerous: legalism, mysticism and asceticism.  These pathways were a danger for the Colossian believers, and they remain a danger for believers today.  Let’s study them together tonight and learn that…  

Proposition: Because we have the whole Christ, we should let no one take us captive to the world’s ways again.

Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Spirit of Jesus, warned his Colossians brother & sisters against three distinct dangers. 

(vv.16-17) The First Danger: Legalism – Someone was pressuring these believers to include Jewish Religious Ritual in their practice of Christianity.  Apparently they were saying something like, “If you were really God’s people, you’d be eating kosher foods, you’d be keeping the New Moon festivals, you’d give up worshipping on Sunday and properly keep the Sabbath!  Since you aren’t doing these things, you’re obviously still under God’s condemnation.”  These outsiders were “passing judgment” on the believer over things that believers were freed from by Christ’s victory on the cross.  Legalism seeks to substitute human pathways and practices for God’s righteousness.  The legalist tries to create his own righteousness through rules, rituals and higher levels of self-discipline.  Listen to Warren Wiersbe’s analysis of the problem the Colossians were facing: “The person who judges a believer because that believer is not living under Jewish laws is really judging Jesus Christ.  He is saying that Christ did not finish the work of salvation on the cross, and that we must add something to it.  He is also saying that Jesus Christ is not sufficient for all the spiritual needs of the Christian.  The false teachers in Colosse were claiming a ‘deeper spiritual life’ for all who would practice the law.  Outwardly, their practices seemed to be spiritual; but in actual fact, these practices accomplished nothing spiritual.”[2]  This is why Paul said, “These (Laws and rituals) are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (v.17).”  What did he mean?  He meant that the Jewish laws were simply foreshadowing all that believers have now received in Christ.  Christ has fulfilled the law on our behalf.  What more do we need to add?  “Why go back into the shadows when we have the reality in Jesus Christ?  This is like trying to hug a shadow when the reality is at hand!”[3] 

[DOCTRINAL POINT] Don’t fall into the trap of legalism; stand firm in the freedom Christ purchased for you in the cross.  

(vv.18-19) The Second Danger: Mysticism – Here again, pressure was being exerted on the Colossians by someone outside of the church: “Let no one disqualify you…”  Some were apparently saying to them, “Look here.  You haven’t had a qualifying experience that’s necessary to salvation.  Have you experienced the supernatural personally?  Have you had this particular experience of the Spirit?  Haven’t you had visions of angels?  No special dreams?  Well, are you really a Christian at all, then?”  This is another type of legalism, just as the insistence on ritualism we saw in verses 16-17 was.  The idea here is that in order to be authentic, you must pass through certain prescribed spiritual experiences of a mystical nature.  “Have you spoken in tongues,” for example.  Or, “Have you had visions of Jesus?”  “Has God spoken to you in dreams or have you had some other special experience with the Holy Spirit?”  Well, what about that?  Shouldn’t a believer have these extraordinary things happen in his or her life?  The Scripture is clear that some believers do experience such things, but that not everyone has or needs to have such experiences.  God deals with each one differently, according to each one’s need and situation.  What counsel does the text give us about those who would pressure us in these matters?  First of all, we are told that the pressure to seek these things often comes from a false humility: “insisting on asceticism…”  The word the ESV translates as “asceticism” is perhaps better translated, “false humility” as in the NIV.  These people are always talking themselves down, (“I’m really just an insignificant worm”) and talking their experiences up (“But I’ve had this great experience of the Spirit”).  Their special experience comes out over and over again.  You can’t be around them for long without hearing about it.  They sound humble, but in reality they think of themselves quite highly.  This is why our text tells us that such a person is “puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind.”  Note that word “sensuous.”  This is a person that is run by their feelings, and insists that everyone who is really a Christian should be run by his or her feelings as well!  What is the Spirit’s judgment of such people?  It is that they have lost hold of Jesus, “not holding fast to the head.”  True spirituality is found in Christ.  He is the one who causes the whole body to grow up with a growth that is from God.  Wiersbe gives us another good word here: “The spiritual body grows by nutrition, not addition.”[4]  We grow in Christ because we spend time with Jesus, not because we add mystical experiences to our spiritual resumes! 

[DOCTRINAL POINT] Don’t fall into the trap of mysticism; stand firm in the freedom Christ purchased for you in the cross. 

(vv.20-23) The Third Danger: Asceticism – Another danger faced by sincere Christians who want to grow up in Christ is that of “asceticism.”  Asceticism is “Severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.”  There have been times in Church history when asceticism seemed to dominate the spiritual lives of believers.  From about the fourth century onward, Christian monasticism loomed large as a sure way to holiness, prestige and heaven.  The ascetic denies himself pleasures and comforts others might enjoy, and this is done in a quest to escape from the power of the flesh, our old fallen nature living within each one of us.  “How can I overcome temptation,” asks the ascetic?  “I’ll master self-control through self-denial.”  So the ascetic says, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not [even] touch.”  It all sounds very spiritual, but what does the Scripture say about it?  First of all it says that this is just worldly nonsense (v.20).  This is the human way to try to attain godliness.  This, too, is a form of legalism.  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch,” are restrictions on Christian liberty.  All things have been made clean by Christ (cf. Mark 7:19).  Asceticism is the natural product of ritualism and mysticism: it gets its working method from legalism and its inspiration from mysticism![5]  What is God’s evaluation of asceticism?  Verse 23 is very plain: these things “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”  This is because asceticism has the appearance of godliness, but in reality exalts man rather than God

[DOCTRINAL POINT] Don’t fall into the trap of asceticism; stand firm in the freedom Christ purchased for you in the cross. 

[ILLUSTRATION] I don’t wish to be inflammatory at the expense of other Christians, but could any illustration of this principle be more apparent than the trouble of rampant pedophilia being discovered in certain Christian denominations in our day?  Mere self-denial has no power to overcome the strength of our fallen nature!  We must have the strength that comes from our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. 

So, why are these three dangers still a peril for believers in our day?  Though the Scriptures have warned believers of these dangers since Paul penned the book of Colossians, even today believers continue to be taken captive by these traps.   

[APPLICATION] Believers give in to the pressures of legalism, mysticism and asceticism because they do not realize that in Christ they have enough.  Perhaps we want to be more than Christ has made us.  Maybe we dream of becoming “Super Christian,” distinguishing ourselves in some way, setting ourselves apart from the run of the mill lot we see around us in our churches.  The use of these practices does indeed exalt the self!  Another cause of falling into these traps might just be the opposite: far from wanting to exalt ourselves, maybe we fall into these snares because we are disappointed with ourselves.  We don’t seem to measure up, so we look for ways to improve ourselves.  These legalisms appeal to us as human ways to try to find God and draw closer to Him.  This is a good hearted aspiration, gone terribly wrong!  But by far the greatest pressure comes from neither of these two sources.  It is just plain old fashioned peer pressure.  Those around us, those in our group who seem influential tell us that this is what we’re supposed to do, and like sheep we follow their wishes.  Our leaders say, “Do this!” and we say, “Okay!”  Only a clear understanding of the total sufficiency we have in Christ will keep us from falling into this trap.  When Jesus becomes bigger than ourselves in our vision, we will stop believing we can contribute anything to the righteousness and power He has already provided for us.  We must be people who are constantly searching the Scriptures for Christ, for He lives on every page.  Many today constantly search the Scriptures in a vain effort to find themselves!  “I have to become like David, the giant killer!  I must dare to be a Daniel!”  Such people are completely missing the point of those men’s lives!  Their stories aren’t about who they were; they are about who God is.  They are about what God did for David; what God did through Daniel.  The story of Scripture is of God’s sufficiency, supplying for man’s poverty.  A believer need never surrender to legalism, or mysticism or asceticism because we already have enough in Christ.  We are complete in Him.  His righteousness is our righteousness.  His Spirit lives within our hearts.  Believer, are you tempted to supply what God has already provided?  The notion must be killed that we can contribute anything to our own salvation, for until that is grasped we will fall back on our own self-help methods, the human way of thinking that is valueless in our fight with the flesh.  Because many are ignorant of this principle they live lives of despair and resignation.  Having tried and failed time after time to overcome the flesh, they finally settle into a life of plodding home to glory, neither very good nor very bad Christians.  They sort of “slump” into heaven’s gate.  What a tragedy!  As believers we have died with Christ to the old way of powerless living and been raised with Him to a whole new status.  All is ours in Christ.  Are we claiming it, or do we still believe that we must contribute something to our salvation from the flesh’s power?  “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” dear one.  “It is not in trying but in trusting.”  Are you counting on His power or yours for godly living?                      

Conclusion: Syncretism, throwing together God’s gift and man’s practices will never provide a sound pathway to authentic Christianity.  “Let no one tell you otherwise: legalism is bondage!”[6]  Some old preacher years ago said it best: “There is only one thing that will put the collar on the neck of the animal within us, and that is the power of the indwelling Christ.”[7] 

[1] Guy Appere, “El Misterio de Cristo,” page 91.

[2] Warren Wiersbe, “The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament Vol. II, page 129.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Guy Appere, “El Misterio de Cristo.”

[6] Wiersbe.

[7] Vaughan, C. (1981). Colossians. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon (Vol. 11, p. 208). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.