Study #17 Colossians 2:16-23
by Bob Burridge ©2022
We often look for good advice about what will be good for us to be doing and valuing. When we ask for advice, there’s no shortage of opinions out there.
When I read this portion of Colossians I did a quick internet search of the phrase “bad advice”. In 0.66 seconds Google.com quickly returned 4,750,000 web site links having to do with bad advice. They offered opinions about bad advice about dress styles, furniture, dating, investments, politics, food, medicines, religion, science, just about every area of life. Bad advice is abundantly available.
When it comes to bad advice, I often think of the old recommended practice of bleeding a patient. Simply put, when you were sick, a doctor or barber removed blood from your body to correct the problem.
Dr. Henry Clutterbuck of the Royal College of Physicians in 1840 wrote a definitive article on bloodletting. He said that it was a good preventative and curative procedure for many diseases and fevers. “In short, blood-letting is a remedy which, when judiciously employed, it is hardly possible to estimate too highly.” He traced the value of the practice back for over 2000 years. He associates it with Hippocrates, Celsus, Galen and other great ancient physicians. There were 4 primary methods used:
1. phlebotomy or venesection – the drawing of blood from one of the larger veins.
2. arteriotomy – the puncture of an artery.
3. scarification – the cutting open of the superficial blood vessels without suction.
4. the use of leeches – which was specially useful with infants.
Of course this also left patients weak, infected, and with less disease fighting blood cells. It was very bad advice, but it was practiced for much of human history, and it’s still practiced by some today.
Our fallen souls are quick to offer or find horrible advice on serious subjects. The most disastrous bad advice is when it confuses how we’re made right with God and our dealings with sin. As a general rule: when there’s a problem, there are lots of goofy answers and bad advice.
The Christians in ancient Colossae didn’t have the internet to find bad advice about God. But the religious leaders offered enough bad advice to mess up lives very well.
Legalists were trying to get them to go back to the old ways that had been completed in Christ. The innovators in Colossae were primarily ascetic-rabbinic-legalists. The ascetics believed that giving up things they enjoy will make them better people. The rabbinics put more value on the ideas of men than upon the whole word of God. The legalists believed they could earn justification from God by things they do.
First Paul dealt with the danger of
putting our hope in outward practices.
Colossians 2:16, “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.”
For a short time in history, about 1300 years, God established Israel to reveal his plan. She was a model of the church of God which goes from Eden to the end of time. To show how he separates some out of the lost human race by grace, he bound that nation to special rules and gave them special privileges. he sent prophets to them to reveal his law and to explain his promises.
The sacrifices through priests at the tabernacle illustrated that a Messiah would come. He would die, have his blood shed, as a substitute for his people. The dietary laws and other regulations showed that God was the Lord over all of life. Therefore he has the right to forbid some things, and place duties upon them illustrating his unfolding plan. The special holy days reminded Israel about God’s plan and mercy. They had festival days like Passover, Pentecost, and the Day of Atonement. They had a regularly occurring special festival of the monthly new moon. They had some special Sabbaths God added to the weekly Creation Sabbath.
These rules and rituals were temporary to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. Paul had just explained in this letter how Jesus Christ completed the sacrifices. He was the Lamb sacrificed for the sins of his people as their substitute. The dietary laws were no longer needed to mark out the church once it emerged in its broader sense.
That early form ended with the Spirit’s decent at Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection. The festivals pointed toward what Christ would finally accomplish. Now there’s nothing more to point toward. What they commemorated was fulfilled.
When the Messiah came he completed the ancient promises. The ancient sign and seal of the covenant was changed from circumcision to baptism. Paul had just explained that in the verses right before this.
The Messiah, who was prefigured
by all these rites and rules, had come.
17. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
The words translated “the substance belongs to Christ” are sometimes translated, “the body of Christ”. That’s how the King James translated it. The word “body” translates the Greek word “soma” (σωμα). It primarily means any physical object. The Greeks used that word to describe various things of substance that blocked out light and cast shadows. It’s not just about the physical human “body of Christ”.
Here the word “body” is used in contrast with the word “shadow”. The preparatory rituals of the Old Testament were a shadow of what was to come in God’s plan. Jesus was the promised reality which cast the shadow prefigured in those old Mosaic practices. This is why many translations of the Bible use the word “substance”. It better communicates the meaning here. (NASB, ESV)
When Messiah came as the fulfillment foreshadowed in the old ceremonial laws, they were no longer needed. They were no longer appropriate. The clues were set aside because the great mystery they pointed toward was realized.
The shadows are replaced by that which cast them. 1 Corinthians 5:7 calls Christ our Passover which had been sacrificed. He fulfilled what that meal foreshadowed. All the sacrificial rituals were now ended. The writer of Hebrews regularly speaks of the ceremonial rituals and rules as mere shadows.
The false teachers at Colossae were trying to entice the believers to stay with those old practices. The legalists were trying to get them to abstain from certain foods and drinks. They promoted the continuing of the special holy days God set up for old Israel. They promoted these as necessary ways to be made right with God and to overcome our temptations. They were giving bad advice.
But these were no longer the ways prescribed by God. The false teachers emptied the Old Testament rituals of what they prefigured.
Paul warned that believers in Christ shouldn’t let these legalists confuse them, or judge them if they didn’t keep the old Mosaic practices.
Similar things are promoted by some today. There are many who replace salvation by grace alone with the need for ceremonial things we’re to do. They redefine Christian Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as practices that actually remove our sins, instead of marking us out as God’s people, and reminding us of Christ’s finished work on the Cross. Some promote invented church rituals and ceremonies which are needed to make us right with God. Many of these rituals are based on the old Priestly system of Moses. These teachers today are very similar to the false teachers Paul dealt with in Colossae and Galatia.
Next, Paul deals with the danger of putting
our hope in pious attitudes and false worship.
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,
What the false teachers taught, would disqualify them of the blessings of God. The word translated “disqualify” is “kata-bra-beuo” (καταβραβευω). It’s a rare Greek word only found here in the New Testament. It was a word commonly used in ancient sports. It was the unfavorable ruling of an umpire. The bad calls of a referee can keep a team or athlete from winning the prize.
The Colossians shouldn’t let these false teachers cheat them out of their spiritual blessings. When enticed by superficial practices like that, we’re diverted from the ways God says are right. Superficial practices leave us with superficial rewards. They might give us good emotional feelings for the moment, but they leave us empty of the real blessings that only come by grace in the ways God prescribes. They were giving them bad advice. And what was that bad advice?
They promoted asceticism. Paul used a term the Greek speaking Jews would have understood. It’s a Semitic idiom meaning giving up pleasurable things. This was done to show off how pious we are. This is a false display of humility. It’s a humility that makes a big show of itself. It’s a fraud. It says, “See what a humble self-denying person I am!”
They worshiped angels. These false teachers were not just rabbinic Jews clinging to old ways. Some had taken on some pagan Greek ideas. The Bible never promoted the worship of angels or prayers to them.
Even today some claiming to be “Christians” call upon angels and look to them for help. God sometimes used angels sent to inform or help his people. When angels appeared in visible forms in the Bible they refused glory or honor. They made it clear that they were mere messengers of God who alone empowered and directed them.
All glory must be given to God alone for spiritual help and material care. To worship or call upon anyone else for our needs is clearly a form of blasphemy. It denies God’s sovereignty since he alone commands the angels as his heavenly messengers.
They claimed special visions which gave them enlightenment. In Colossae’s pagan culture these visions were connected with the Greek mystery rituals. They believed certain rites elevated them giving them special enlightenment. These false teachers claimed they had deep insights and knowledge from spiritual sources.
There are always those who claim new doctrines, new insights, innovations, and personal revelations. The Bible makes it clear that God does not give new revelation or words of prophesy in this age. With the completion of the New Testament books, there’s no more special revelation until the final judgment and the coming again of Jesus in glory. One of the first signs of a cultish church moving away from its biblical anchor, is a belief in continuing revelation, or in secret sources of truth outside of Scripture.
Paul say that these are puffed up without reason by a sensuous mind. They paraded their strictness or piety as if it means they live on a higher spiritual plane.
This is the heart of the deeper life movements we see today. They measure spirituality by these things they do. C. S. Lewis called it the idea of an inner ring, proud hearts forming exclusive spiritual clubs. They look down on the rest as less mature spiritually, and less enlightened. When a believer is set free in Christ, such immature, prideful behavior should stop.
Some evangelicals have fallen into this error by creating separate categories for spiritual and carnal Christians. Biblically, carnality is an ongoing battle for every Christian. We never get so enlightened or blessed that we don’t struggle against fleshly abuses. There’s no higher class of Christians enlightened over a lower class in the church. This is the kind of error Paul warns against here.
The false teachers were abandoning
the headship of Christ over his church.
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.
These spiritually proud groups were a serious problem even in the early church. The church draws life from Christ directly as our physical bodies are directed by it’s physical head. Jesus isn’t just the head of the church symbolically. He’s the Sovereign Lord over his church.
We are supplied and held together by Christ the head which guides us as a group of believers saved by grace. It’s just like the way our physical bodies are held together under our heads by our joints and ligaments. We grow with a growth that’s from God. That’s all we need spiritually.
Believers have a real living relationship with him. The presence of Christ, and his word in us, directs and satisfies us with the ways of God. There is no need or place in Christ’s church for the fulfilled Old Testament rituals, diets, or special holy days. We shouldn’t let our pride deceive us into angel worship, or a desire for visions and special enlightenment.
Then Paul summarizes bringing it all together.
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?
The ascetic-rabbinic-legalists imagined that to please God and to be happy we need to abstain from good things and follow invented or out-dated rituals. Bad advice. Outward religion isn’t the way to God. Asceticism (abstaining from things) is not true holiness.
How could anyone expect to grow spiritually by changing their diet or by avoiding things that themselves perish? It’s simply bad advice.
Sincere believers are united with Christ in his death which paid for our sins, reuniting us with God, and enabling us to be growing spiritually.
What harm does their bad advice do?
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.
These mere appearances of wisdom are like a coat of paint over bad decaying wood. Again, Paul uses a rare Greek expression translated as “self-made religion” [“ethelo-thraeskia” (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ)]. It only occurs here in the New Testament. But the Greeks used it to mean “rigorous devotion”. It’s the self effort that’s so dominant in man-made religions. They take pride in their false piety and humility, and abstain from normal pleasures rather than finding real satisfaction by discovering the way our Creator made things to work.
We have an expression in our modern world: “caveat emptor“. It means, “let the buyer beware”. Deceivers entice us with bad advice. It’s not just those who sell us cars that turn out to be lemons, or houses with hidden defects. There are peddlers of lies in the churches. They’ve always been there in every era of history.
In Christ, we have all we need. We also have the sound advice God’s preserved for us in his written word. If we look for more in other places, we step onto dangerous territory that won’t bring us what we’re told to expect. That is good advice! It’s God’s advice.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.