16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and 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.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.Colossians 1:16-23
Refresh & Restore — June 16, 2022 (Jesus Over All 13) – Refresh & Restore | A JustKeithHarris.com Podcast
I have started and restarted today’s Bible study in my head several times. Over the past few weeks, I have seen several examples of why today’s text is important, and I want to be careful to communicate exactly what it is saying and why it is so important in the life of a believer. It is extremely important to understand that the Bible serves as the guide for Christian practice and not outside sources or traditions.
Before we go any further, there are two passages that are important to form context for this passage. The first is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
We enter every conversation, every interaction with something called a presupposition – “basic beliefs that are essential for a particular type of study to be conducted” or assumptions we already hold that affect our thinking on a subject. For the Christian, it is imperative – vitally important – that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 be our presupposition; we need to have the belief that the Bible is God’s Word. What we believe about the Bible affects the way we interact with the Bible. Do we see it as important or merely a valuable influence? Does it contain absolute truth, or can it be of value to us as we form our own truth? That matters.
The second passage we need to help us with today’s passage is Ephesians 4:17-24:
17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
There are two statements Ephesians 4:20-21 that is vital to us, especially when it comes to passages like ours today: 1) “but that is not the way you learned Christ!”, and 2) “assuming that you heard about Him and were taught in Him, as the truth is in Jesus”. For the church in Ephesus – and the church today, Paul’s statements clarify that there is a difference between knowing Christ (learned Christ, were taught in Him) and not knowing Him. Furthermore, there is a difference in one’s way of life not knowing Christ and knowing Him.
This is an unpopular view, but the Bible means what it means. It had specific meaning for its original audiences and for us today. It is supposed to inform our beliefs and behaviors (part of that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 presupposition). Now, there is freedom within some of those beliefs for variety of action among the saints – grace to practice differently within the confines of Scripture. But there are some beliefs that are so fundamental to the faith that there is no wiggle room. For example, the Bible is clear on salvation and the message of the gospel – no wiggle room. There are, however, choices of personal conviction – or even conviction on the part of a local church – that do not contradict Scripture but take staunch stances on that every church does not have to take. For example, worship style or instrumentation.
For the Colossian church, there were added difficulties, and we have touched on them before. First, their pastor did the best he could with the limited knowledge he had. Second, false teachers saw that limited knowledge and lack of depth in discipleship as an invitation to bring wolves to attack the sheep. The Colossian church had learned Christ (see Ephesians 4:20-21) but there were gaps. And it is the false teaching shoved into those gaps that Paul has been correcting in our passages for the past two weeks. We have looked at what it means for doctrine to be “not according to Christ” (v. 8). We discussed how the false teachers were seeking to take the church “captive by philosophy and empty deceit” (v. 8). Today’s passage is going to get a bit more specific.
Due to the nature of today’s passage and my desire to be even more careful than usual in dealing with them, I want to streamline the way we break down today’s passage. I usually write out the Bible study like I would say it if I were teaching it or preaching it. Today, we are going to take it phrase-by-phrase or sentence-by-sentence through this passage and give brief clarification and application for each.
Phrase-by-Phrase/Sentence-by-Sentence Clarification and Application
Therefore let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. (v. 16)
The “therefore” points back to verses 13 and 14 that explain what Jesus did for us in salvation and verse 15 that tells us the result of Jesus’ finished work on the cross and through the empty tomb on Satan and his forces. It is because of Jesus’ work that we do not have to allow people to be able to pass judgment on us – because He is the Judge – and His Word prescribes what needs to be prescribed.
The issues of eating and festivals falls into the way that some of the false teachers seemed to try to implement the Jewish dietary laws and Old Testament festivals and observances as necessary for salvation. The point here is not that believers are above judgment – again Jesus is judge and there are issues He has called His church to be watchful over their fellow believers; the issue is that we must be careful who we let prescribe practices to the church. That is part of that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 presupposition: God prescribes practices and gives mission to the church through His Word.
These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (v. 17)
The Old Testament practices that the false teachers were trying to add to the Colossian church’s practice were not meant for them. Many things in the Old Testament were meant to point to Christ. They were shadows – opportunities to see glimpses of what would be when God’s promises would be fulfilled, but shadow is not tangible (Hebrews 8:1-5). Shadows have the shape of the substance but are not the thing they point to. Jesus is the substance. He is the embodiment – literally – of the Law, and all the Scriptures (OT and NT) point to Him (Luke 24:27).
Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head…. (vv. 18-19a)
The most important phrase in these verses is “and not holding fast to the Head”. This begins Paul’s description of the Church as the body of Christ with Christ Himself being its head. So, before we look at the specific religious beliefs that people wanted to use to disqualify the Colossian church, understand this: they were religious beliefs not centered on Jesus. That needs to sink in, so you may need to hear it again: Jesus is at the center of Christianity. If there is no Christ, there is no Christianity – not Jesus+ but Jesus-centered.
The religious practices in these verses were common in people trying to exhibit their own worthiness and how superior their religious practice was over others around them. That is still common today with people wanting to be holier-than-thou in their practice. In ancient Colossae, these were the practices that the false teachers thought put them above everyone else and, from their perspective, put everyone else below them:
- Asceticism is the “voluntary abstention from the satisfaction of bodily and social needs, including food, drink, sexual activity, sleep, clothes, wealth, and social interaction”. It was purposefully doing without to appear humble and more righteous or pious than those around them.
- The worship of angels is meant to elevate them to seem like they have a closer connection to heaven. It is a lot like name-dropping in the present to elevate one’s status. It was a means to give the impression that there was a higher plane of religion than following Jesus.
- When it says “going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind”, it is referring to people who claimed that they had a vision from Jesus that altered everything that had been proclaimed 1) by Him as contained in the gospels, and 2) by His apostles in the early church. This points to self-made religion created in the image of Christianity. Wicked men wanted to piggyback on the perceived success of Christianity and branch out on their own. It was the equivalent of selling time-shares and staged faith-healing but back in first century Colossae.
…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. (v. 19)
As I said earlier, there were people who noticed the growth and spread of Christianity who wanted to try to recreate it in their own ways. But Jesus is not a business model; He is God. He saves people and adopts them into His family. They become a part of His body – the church. Think of how vital a human head is in the operations of a body, all the things that we do not have to think about like breathing, walking, talking, swallowing, keeping our hearts beating, etc. that we take for granted because the brain just makes it happen and keeps it going. Jesus is that for the church.
This highlights the foolishness of the false teacher’s message. Would you rather be put on a ventilator so that you can free your brain up to work on different things? No, that would be a last resort in life-saving efforts. Jesus is the head. He is God and the originator of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). We need to follow Him.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? (vv. 20-22)
Think back to our previous passage (vv. 13-14a): “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” Paul clarifies that believers were formerly dead in their sin until Jesus made them alive “together with Him”. If you were dead and are now alive, why seek after the things and ways from your death?
Imagine being dead and being resurrected at your wake or funeral. There would be people who were scared, but there would be rejoicing. What if you told your loved ones that, as much as you were glad to see them, you would rather just go on and lay back down in your comfortable coffin, get them to shut the lid, and just carry on? That would be unheard of – you are alive, why take part in the rest of the funeral? If you are in Christ, your being raised to life with Him means that you have died to the old self and the old ways. Trying to go back to the old normal is the same as getting back in the coffin. Following the same old “human precepts and teaching” that did nothing to bring you life is dabbling with death.
These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (v. 23)
All the practices a false teacher offers can seem to offer hope or seem to be of value. But eventually the false teacher is going to want what he or she was after. I compared the false teachers to people selling time shares earlier. Essentially, they want you to buy into their program and promise benefits, but they often take the money and run leaving the followers poor and dejected and alone. There are people who want to try to improve on Christianity, but how does one improve on resurrection? What is better than moving from life to death?
Religious practice can look really good and have attractive qualities, but without Jesus we are still dead in our sins (2 Timothy 3:5). He has value. He has the power. And it is Him alone we need.
We are quickly moving to a close in our study of Colossians. As we get into chapter 3 next week, you will see that, like today’s passage, things are moving from beliefs to practice. Things will move a bit more quickly than in chapters 1 and 2. But, before we do, I would like to offer you something different than the false teachers offered the Colossian church.
As we have seen, the false teachers saw the lack of knowledge of the Colossian church and the limitations of their pastor’s knowledge. I would like to offer a few practical applications that can help you not fall into the same traps:
- You have access to the Bible. You have something that no one in the Bible had – the entirety of Scripture. You have access to everything than can be known about God, what He has done, and what He has called His church to do. You do not even have to read it because there are so many audio options available, many of which are free (YouVersion, ESV.org). If you claim to be in Christ, you need to be in His Word. Non-negotiable. No excuses. Know what it says or find yourself in danger of either falling prey to a false prophet or finding that you were never saved in the first place.
- I am (probably) not your pastor. Unless you are a member of Christ Community Church in Grenada, MS, I am not your pastor. Even if you are a member of CCC, I am not the pastor but one of the pastors there. You need a pastor. The word pastor means shepherd. Pastors are just men – they fail and are not perfect, but their job is to protect their flocks from the wolves and to teach them what it is to be in Christ. If you are not part of a local church, you are in danger. If you are reading this and are currently rationalizing your position of technically being a member but never gathering with your flock, you are in danger. A lone sheep is an invitation for wolves. Or, as in the case of the Bible above, a lack of desire to gather puts you at greater risk of being swayed by outside sources or false teachers and may show you that you were never saved in the first place.
- Do not neglect – or grieve – the Holy Spirit. He is better than a pastor because He is God dwelling in the hearts of His people. If you are in the Word and walking with Christ, His Spirit will prompt you when something is not right with someone’s teaching, preaching, or critiques of your faith. That is a good thing. Even better is that, since the Holy Spirit dwells in all believers, someone in your flock may be better situated in the Word to recognize danger before you do (which highlights another reason believers are meant to gather). Trust the Spirit to lead you away from danger. Follow His guidance. If He says run, it is best not to stay. If you have never felt His guidance, seek Him in His Word.
Remember that today’s passage fits in the context of our last two sections and leads to next week’s. If there is something in the discussion of today’s verses that is sticking with you, I urge you to test whether it is issue with the way it is presented, maybe a disagreement or issue, or possibly the Holy Spirit convicting you. Remember that the basis of today’s passage, again, is how it fits in this particular section of Colossians. There were false teachers distracting from following Jesus. Are you distracted by the world or dedicated to Him? Jesus is enough – in fact, He is everything. I love you and hope that this was helpful to you. As always, know I am praying for you. If you are not a part of a local church, I would love to help you connect with one!
 F. Leroy Forlines, Biblical Systematics: A Study of the Christian System of Life and Thought (Nashville, TN: Randall House Publications, 1975), 5.