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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

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Since the Apostle Paul begins this section of his letter with the word ‘therefore’, we can know, with certainty, that what he is about to say has its foundation in what has already been said.

If I say to you I have inherited £100,000 therefore I want to give you £1,000, you know by the word ‘therefore’ that the reason I want to give £1,000 is because I have inherited £100,000.

I’m saying this because, so often when we read the bible we are careless about words, and we shouldn’t be. Bible words are seriously important.

The word ‘therefore’ in this sentence makes all the difference. It means that what we are about to be told needs to be understood in light of what we just heard.

So, let’s remind ourselves what Paul just told us. Between verses 9 and 16 he has told us 5 glorious ways we were unified with Jesus when we were saved. First, we have been brought to the fullness of God himself by our union with Jesus (v.9).

Second, our old way of life, called ‘the flesh’, which stood against us, has been cut off by Christ (v.11).

Third, when we were saved, we died with Jesus to our old selves. And, we were raised to a newness of life - by the Holy Spirit of God - in his resurrection (v.12).

Fourth, when Jesus went to the cross he took our personal record of sin that condemned us and nailed it with himself to the cross, thus cancelling our legal indebtedness to God and bringing about forgiveness for us (v.14).

And fifth, Jesus, by taking those charges with him to the cross disarmedSatan - our great enemy - and triumphed over him so that he can accuse us no more (v.15).

These are all our benefits because Jesus united himself with us.

And Paul’s point is that that is meant to have a profound practical impact on the way we live our lives going forward.

The Colossians have some peculiar problems in their midst, but all of this union with Jesus will be the crucial foundation for them in dealing with the problems.

This is Paul’s way of contending for the Colossians, according to verse 1 of chapter 2. He’s contending for them against the heretics who have come in amongst the congregation to take them captive with ‘fine sounding arguments’ and ‘deceptive philosophies’ that threaten to undermine their unity with Christ.

The ideas that are being presented to the Colossians have theappearance of Godliness but are actually spiritually destabilising.

What they have, if they embrace these ideas, is less than the gospel and therefore less than reconciliation with God.

The Gospel is how we are brought back into fellowship with the living God – without it we are all doomed to suffer the consequences of our sins, but Christ has come as the exclusive, powerful, effective solution to our sin problem.

If anything undermines our unity then, with Jesus, it undermines our salvation and Paul is worried for these Colossians – he’s concerned that they might listen to these subtle, beguiling, appealing, deceptive philosophies and so be undone.

According to verse 8, these ideas ‘depend on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ’.

Verse 16 gets specific, these people – probably of a Jewish background – are telling the Colossians that at the very least they are second class Christians - or worse, not Christians at all - unless they observe rules relating to eating and drinking, religious festivals, new moon celebrations and Sabbath days.

Verse 18 continues to outline what’s going on.

There seem to be some who have had visionary experiences of interactions with angels – whether real or not, we’re not told – but they are suggesting that true Christians ought to be humble enough to say that God is too great to be worshipped directly, rather what they should be doing is worshipping God’s servants – angels – and in so doing, the angels will mediate their worship to God. ‘To go this route, would be much less presumptuous’, they’re being told, ‘than worshipping God directly’.

‘Real Christians should be humble enough to worship God via angels and not directly’.

I think that is what is meant by the phrase ‘delights in false humility’ in verse 18.

So, there are two massive false teachings coming to the Colossians: Firstly, observe old testament religious stipulations. And secondly, worship God via angels. Paul’s emphatic message is this: these are competing philosophies - potentially faith destroying philosophies - and they need rejecting out of hand!

He says, in verse 16 ‘do not let anyone judge you by religious stipulations.

And in verse 18 he says, ‘do not let [the same 3 word phrase as verse 16] anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you’.

The problem for the Colossians is that both these philosophies have impressive qualities. The first type is the type that can be seen; that looks visually impressive and which allows you to make an outward judgement about the quality of a person’s Christian performance. This is appealing because we like external Christianity – it’s easier to fulfil external rules than it is to obey from the heart.

The second type is impressive because it is based on a Christian experience which is rooted in mystery – and we really love mystery!

‘Here are people who have had visions of angels, so surely, they must know what they’re talking about! And if we follow their instructions maybe we will have our own mystical experience which would be so cool’.

So, both of these ideas are really appealing. They are particularly appealing when the buzz of Christian conversion has passed and it feels like Christian living is hard work and a humdrum.

But Paul’s double 3 letter imperative to them, ‘do not let’ carries with it the force of the danger these ideas present to the faith of the Colossians.

What he means by ‘do not let’, is ‘do not be taken in by them’. He doesn’t mean stay away from these people, he doesn’t mean shun them, or assault them, or character assassinate them. He means don’t buy into their ideas. Be so resolute in the truth – so well informed about the gospel - that dangerous and competing philosophies simply can’t take you captive. He’s saying, ‘Colossian Christians, grow up in your faith. Be so well informed and so steadfast in your faith that these ideas are like water off a duck’s back. Be so well informed and so steadfast in your faith that these kinds of philosophies can’t sneak in under the radar’.

He means if a brother or sister, for example, suggests to you over coffee that to be a mature Christian you need to abstain from marriage, you’re so well versed in scripture, you know exactly what Jesus and his apostles said about marriage, and you can say in a loving and winsome way, ‘let me show you from the scriptures that’s not actually the case’. In other words, you don’t get sucked in by that kind of faulty philosophy.

Here’s how Paul did it for the sake of the Colossians. In verse 17 he points out that rules about eating and drinking and festivals, new moons and sabbath days were all shadows of the reality that was to come and that reality was Christ.

How do we suppose that he came to that conclusion? The answer is surely, that he studied carefully the recorded words of the Lord Jesus when he said, referring to himself, things like: ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ directly after being confronted by Pharisees for Sabbath-undermining behaviour.

And the answer is surely, that he recalled the fact that his fellow apostle, Peter, had a real vision from heaven in which God showed him clearly that all animals were now clean and any could be eaten – something that seemed to Peter like a complete anathema - but that he received in order to show him that a seismic shift had taken place with the arrival of Jesus on the scene.

Paul knew the scriptures that spoke of Jesus, and that enabled him to inform the Colossians that, in reality, all those shadows had been pointing to Jesus who had now arrived.

There is no place for shadows anymore Colossians!

According to verse 19, Paul considers the notion that, a humble approach to God would be to come to him via angel worship – he considers that a loss of connection with the head. And we know what Paul has in mind by ‘head’ because of Ephesians 4:15, ‘speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ’. Paul is saying ‘they have lost connection with Jesus when they suggest that a humble approach to God comes in the form of angel worship’.

That’s how this kind of philosophy disqualifies a person. Our assurance of acceptance with God comes by being united with Christ in his death and his resurrection. Baptism is the sign and seal of that reality.

Approaching God via angel worship is, therefore, not only impossible, it cuts Jesus out and it makes a person disqualified from their reconciliation with God. There is no reconciliation with God without Christ.

These people had lost connection with Christ and they were encouraging others to follow suit.

What was the driver behind their philosophy? Verse 18, it was pride. Their notions are idle or of no benefit; their minds are unspiritual or fleshly; and their hearts are puffed up or full of pride.

They get the upper hand by suggesting that they have encountered unique things that qualify them to teach others how to worship God. In other words, what they make out to the Colossians to be the humbleapproach to God, Paul exposes as driven by pride.

What looks holy on the surface is actually Satanically self-asserting underneath.

Deb and I, as many of you know, have a very poorly niece. Because of her condition, crucial parts of her brain have stopped telling her body to produce essential hormones which are key for making her body grow.

What that means is, that without her parents administering those hormones artificially, our niece won’t grow. It’s a very concerning condition that she has and it is the cause of constant concern for her parents and the doctors.

What you and I take for granted in our normally functioning bodies, she has to fight for every day of her life.

Paul says in verse 19, the whole body – according to Ephesians 4:15, that’s the church – the whole church grows by its connection with the head who is Christ. That is how God causes the church to mature and grow up – he does it my supplying it with the spiritual nutrition it needs via Christ its head. Take that connection away and it cannot grow. My niece can’t grow by herself at the moment because the connection has been lost. The church can’t grow if it listens to these puffed up deceivers because they are advocating replacing Jesus with angels.

That is simply fatal for this body of believers.

Remaining united with the head is essential for the Church going forward and these philosophies are serving to undermine that unity at every turn. Christ is the head of every power and authority according to Paul in verse 10, but these deceivers have made angels head over him.

It was Christ who disarmed our great accuser in the courtroom of heaven (verse 15), but these deceivers are now accusing the Colossians of being second-rate Christians because they aren’t observing human traditions and external rules. And the Colossians are letting them! From what have they been freed anyway?!

It was Christ who took their sins away nailing them to the cross with himself making fellowship with God a reality, but according to these deceivers they are haughty, presumptuous and unqualified because they haven’t learned to come to God by the worship of angels.

They died to their fleshly way of life according to Paul, when they put their faith in Jesus, but these deceivers would have them believe that it’s by that fleshly way of life that they find peace with God. This is why Paul wrote verses 9-15 to the Colossians. He wanted to emphasise that all the benefits that are theirs, are theirs because of Christ, and all of them are utterly undone if these deceptive and hollow philosophies are followed!

That leads Paul to ask a basic question is verse 20: ‘why, since you died with Christ to these elemental spiritual forces (to a fleshly way of life) are you still doing as if you belong to it by submitting to its rules? That’s a retrograde step. You’re going backwards not forwards! Stop behaving as if nothing has changed! You were united with Christ in his death to these very things. You died to a way of life that was focussed on created things – things destined to perish. Don’t you know there’s going to be a new heavens and new earth and all the tangible stuff is going to be burned up, so why do you behave as if it will last? Why do you continue to do as if it has the answers? You have put your faith in Christ ‘in whom is all the fullness of complete understanding’, and now you depart from him so quickly? Come to your senses! Remember what you died to!’

All these alternative philosophies that are being presented to the Colossians have the appearance of Godliness but they are unbiblical, human ideas that serve to undermine the gospel.

The Lord Jesus himself had things to say to people in his own day who were like these deceivers in many ways. They were the Pharisees and they loved all the outward expressions of belonging to a religious system and being able to pronounce judgment on people.

Matthew 15 is particularly insightful: They said to Jesus, ‘”Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t they wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honour your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death’. But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God’, they are not to honour their father or mother with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition…Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (15:2-10).

The kinds of teachings these deceivers were introducing in Colossae were, according to Jesus, the kind that ‘nullify the word of God for the sake of tradition’. They are the kind that have the appearance of Godliness but deny its power. Paul puts it like this in verse 23, ‘Such regulations have the appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body but’ - and this is a good measure of their falsehood – ‘they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence’.

What does Paul think has value for restraining sensual indulgence? 1 Timothy 4:8 tells us, ‘Godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come’.

Sensual indulgence here simply means gratification of fleshly desires and material cravings. Paul is saying that since these external human rules depend on the flesh and on material things, how can they have any power in curbing our desires for fleshly and material things? They can’t! We need supernatural spiritual power to fight those urges, and that power comes from Christ our head – us in union with him.

So, I think there are two main things we learn from this. There are potentially 2 categories of people in the life of the church, neither of which we want to be a part of.

There is the category of people who fall foul of the external constraints or rules that are brought against them by others. Paul’s remarks here are to that category.

Paul says loud and clear: ‘be so rooted in the word of God and so united with Christ that you can spot human traditions a mile off. And when they come cut them off in mid flow. Do not let them sear your conscience’.

What does sear the conscience mean? (1 Timothy 4:2) Our conscience is a very sensitive organ. It is given us by God and it can be shaped by both good and evil. The hot iron of human tradition can sear our consciences and make us feel bad for not conforming. Paul says, don’t let that happen. Preserve your consciences; keep them clean from acts that lead to death.

The second category that we can fall into is the one that makes the human traditions and presses them on others in the church. And the reason why I think we can take this application away with us is because any of us can easily fall into the trap of judging our brothers and sisters by our own external set of rules.

It rarely looks as radical as the deceivers in Colossae modelled it. More often it looks like little stuff. We puff ourselves up maybe and say, ‘why are we always the first ones here setting out the chairs’. We puff ourselves up maybe and say, ‘do you know that that brother drinks alcohol’. We puff ourselves up maybe and say, ‘I haven’t seen them put anything in the offering box for weeks’.

And, I think we’ve got a really good example in the bible for taking the behaviour of these deceivers as a warning for ourselves from this passage. I mentioned earlier that perhaps Paul had in mind Peter’s vision of the sheet descending from heaven with all kinds of animals in it and God saying ‘eat’. And how he had to be told that there were no longer any unclean animals.

But in Galatians we have a first-hand account from Paul that he had opposed Peter to his face because, according to Paul, he stood condemned. Verse 14 of chapter 2 tells us that Peter was, along with others, forcing gentiles to follow Jewish customs.

Paul describes Peter as acting out of line with the gospel. That’s the apostle Peter! So, I think we can fall foul of this easily.

As a church we want to be ultra-careful to avoid a spirit of judgment rising up from human traditions.

That kind of spirit is dangerous because it sears people’s consciences and because it potentially disqualifies them. They serve to cause a disconnect from Christ and thus a stunting of spiritual growth at both the individual and collective levels.

We simply cannot afford to allow that kind of philosophy to develop in the church.

So, we must avoid introducing those kinds of falsehoods, and we must spot them when they are present and seek to eradicate them quickly.

And next time, in chapter 3, Paul is going to show us the better way to act.


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