Colossians 2. 16-23: Mystery of two Ditches

October 30, 2011 Series: Colossians

Topic: New Testament Passage: Colossians 2:16–2:23

INTRO:  Maturity Confusion
No one wants to be called spiritually immature.  And because few, if any of us, will ever be humble enough to admit we’re immature, when challenged, we will usually respond poorly. Some of us run in order to distance ourselves from the accusation, all while tallying up evidence to the contrary in our minds.  Some of us hide, get depressed, point fingers, play victim, and wallow in the despair of not being able to grow up.  And still others, when charged to be “spiritually mature”, accept the challenge, and begin to fight, to prove we’re mature by doing “mature” spiritual things.  All of these approaches fail.

The truth is, we’re all immature and we all have some work to do—and I believe we want to do it.  Pastors get in trouble, and people’s ears begin to itch, when they speak about WORK.  Theologically, we understand the Bible to teach that the only thing we contribute to our salvation is sin—that we do nothing and God does everything.  So when Paul says to fight, to practice, or to train for godliness, what kind of “work” are we talking about?  Jesus ran into this question after feeding five thousand people : John 6.25-29 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you { I AM BREAD OF LIFE]. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in whom he has sent.”  The work of God is faith in Christ.  In other words, life, growth, maturity, comes from feasting on Jesus and not the world.    

The Two Ditches of Immaturity on the Road of Maturity
On the road of Christ-centered maturity, the person and work of Jesus is the motivation, the means, and the model for maturity.  But there are ditches we fall into on each side of the road—both immature.  One ditch is self-indulgence where we can do anything because we believe Christ did everything; and the other is self-righteousness where we try to do everything but we don’t believe Christ did anything.  If it’s not obvious, the apostle John makes it clear that we cannot be a Christian and keep pursuing sin (even in the name of grace)—Jesus saves us from that.  But he also saves us from the other ditch.  It is much harder for us to avoid the ditch of self-righteousness because it makes it feel like we’re growing up spiritually—like we have something to measure ourselves…and others.  It feels spiritual to focus all of our energies on the external things we should NOT do and all the external things we SHOULD DO.  

This is not a new struggle—the Colossians struggle with the same things.  And my guess is that Paul knows that the Colossians may be tempted to believe that maturity is going to come from working the wrong way.   So Paul writes to make sure they know exactly what he is NOT talking about.  A group of “spiritual elite” pretenders are telling the Colossians that their faith is not complete, they have some spiritual deficiency that needs to be “filled up” apart from Christ in them.  And they are assaulting these young Christians in two ways, by condemning them for the “unspiritual” things they are doing, and rejecting them for not doing “spiritual” they should be.  And though both of these things have the appearance of maturity, they are sinfully immature.

 16-17 DO NOT LET JUDGE –  Things you should NOT be doing/forbidden
Paul begins by encouraging the Colossians not to let anyone judge them for how they live.  In essence, the false teachers are condemning them for things they should not be doing. 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.

Here Paul emphasizes some of the Jewish elements that are part of this heresy.  The Colossians are being judged for their refusal to practice Jewish diets and to observe the Jewish holy days.  The Jews had specific dietary laws that distinguished clean and unclean foods they could eat.  They also had a particular calendar that recognized various yearly, monthly, and weekly observances.  The diets and days were not optional for the Jewish people, they were LAW; they were part of their spiritual identity as the people of God.  And while there are earthly benefits to all of these things, they ultimately served to emphasize God’s holiness and to make an important spiritual dichotomy between that which is pure and that which is impure.  These diets and days, though healthy and good, were not intrinsically sacred; they were sacred because God declared them so.  They are being judged and being told they are sinning inr what they are DOING.  Namely, the Colossians are ignoring the “rules” and feasting on bacon, drinking wine, watching the camel races on festival days, working on the Sabbath.

The Colossians are told that, if they want to mature, they have to stop doing what is forbidden.  In truth, all of details of the law, all of the dietary laws and days pointed to Christ—Paul tells us in Galatians that the law was a guardian, a caretaker, a tutor to guide us until Chirst.  The light of God was shining on Jesus and making a shadow.  If we followed it, we’d see that he was the true revelation we were being led to.  And though God’s good law still shows us how bad sin has made us, our faith in Christ saves us from condemnation of the Law.  The demands of the Law are fulfilled completely by the sinless substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.  Galatians 5.1 says, For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Sadly, many Christian are scared to live that way. In Christ, “All things are lawful” even if, “not all things are helpful” (1Cor 10.23).   Because of how they have seen various things (food, drink, language, etc.) abused or have abused it themselves—they believe that once you say “all things are lawful” then people will say, “all things are helpful.”  Only the immature say that. 

Immature Danger of Legalism
And only the immature make new laws that everyone must follow, to try and prove or achieve spiritual maturity.  The flesh loves legalism because law and lawlessness come from the same place—self-glory.   It is easier to live with specific rules just as it is easier to live without any.   Legalism allows you to organize your life by not living.  That which is spiritual becomes more of a system and less of a lifestyle.  The danger is, when someone encounters an issue that does not fit their system, something that is not on their list, they are ill-equipped to make a decision on their own—they have not developed discernment (Swearing Ex.)  Instead of being motivated by a heart wanting to honor Jesus, they are motivated by a head wanting to look good in front of others or feel good themselves.  They swing on a pendulum between pride and despair depending on how law-abiding we were that day.  Freedom is much harder and requires you pray more, study more, counsel more, and discern every moment what is most glorifying to God.

There are good fences, sometimes for a season, and sometime for a lifetime.  Without question, we need to protect ourselves and our children.  But we must never attach spiritual maturity to those fences or judge those who have them OR don’t.  Romans 14.1-9  As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

v. 18-19 LET NO ONE DISQUALFY – Things you should be doing/required
So, if the “work” of growing in Christ doesn’t come from NOT doing a bunch of “unspiritual” things, then perhaps we just need to focus doing working to DO a bunch of spiritual things. Wrong. 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.   The Colossians are being “disqualified” or rejected as mature because they are not spiritual enough.  Not only are they condemning the Colossians for doing what the pagans do, they are telling them they are not real “Christians do.”  From what Paul writes, it appears as if they are disqualifying them on the basis of not experiencing the presence of God through asceticism and mysticism.  In Colossae, it is coming in the form of extreme abstention practices (marriage, sex, vows of poverty, etc.), angelic worship, and special elaborate visions.  We can see this kind of influence in some of today’s fundamentalist AND charismatic movements—where we being a cooler Pharisees or having heightened emotional experiences are the measure of one’s spiritual maturity.  There is a spiritual elite class.

Elitist Spirituality is Spiritual Immaturity
The “spiritual elite” are those people who talk and act as if there is some Christian “inner circle” that only the mature can be a part of.  They have their own language, own stories, own behaviors.  And for the Colossians, and all of us, there is a temptation to want to be a part of it.  In fact, many people will fake it along with everyone else because they don’t want to be different.  We’ll pretend we understand, believe, even claim to have experienced certain things so others don’t find us out. More than that, we’ll look down on others who haven’t “arrived” where we have. Proving your spiritual by doing or saying certain things is as immature as proving your spiritual by not doing things. Paul condemns all their foolish claims as coming from prideful people, devoid of reason, driven by a mind that wants to feel good about themselves, especially in comparison to others.

And Paul says that the heart of the problem for these guys is that they have lost their connection with the person and work of Christ.  The Colossians are not the ones in danger of being “disqualified”, the heretics are.   All of their “spirituality” is pretense, their loud, popular, and they put on a good show so that everyone can stand in awe of their spirituality.  Look-at-me spirituality is the very thing that Jesus warned about in Matthew 6.16-18   16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  But it’s rarely about what Jesus has done, and all about what they have done or are doing. Paul says they are a Christian without Christ.  And if they are without Christ, they are without Christ’s body—they are not growing, they are dyingu because they are not connected with the true church.  Individual experiences and special visions not only isolate people from the glories of Christ, they isolate them from the people of God (there to protect)

V. 20-23 DEAD to the WORLD ALIVE to CHRIST
In conclusion, Paul leads us away from the powerlessness  of man-centered spirituality and toward the power of the cross.   He reminds the Colossians, who were once alive to world and dead to Christ, that by the power of the gospel, Christ had made them alive.  They are dead to sin and alive Christ.  And that means that all of their sinful efforts to grow, whether through working to NOT do things or to DO certain things, is as good as good as the walking dead. 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.

Why Submit? (Garden of Eden Do Not Touch legalism)
Paul asks why they would consider submitting to such meaningless things in the name of spiritual maturity.  In light of the supremacy of Christ and the sufficiency of the cross to deal with sin, Paul points out the foolishness of man-made religion and its inabliity to solve the problem in our hearts.   Our problem is not external, our problem is internal. Creating new laws, abstaining from God’s gifts, or following certain traditions, do not make us more right or acceptable before God.  Our acceptance comes from faith in acceptable work of Christ.  And so the WORK of maturity is not to prove our righteousness by not doing o doing certain things—it is to work to believe, to understand, and to know who we are.  We fight from our righteousness not for it—but we fight to know it more deeply.

The Gospel is NOT that we develop a righteousness apart from God so that we’re deemed “good” and then He owes and accepts  us. The gospel is that He develops a righteousness through Jesus Christ and gives it to us (II Cor. 5:21). The Gospel is not that “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’ve been good,” but that “it doesn’t matter if you’ve been good, as long as you believe in Christ as your Lord and Savior.”  The Gospel is not that we go from being irreligious to being religious, it’s that we realize that our reasons for both our religiosity (self-righteousness) and our irreligiously (self-indulgence) were essentially the same and essentially wrong.  Disbelief in the Gospel of grace, of course, keeps the unconverted from God.   But a lack of deep belief in the Gospel is also the main cause of spiritual deadness, fear, and pride in ChristiansJesus is the motivation, the means, and the model for maturity. 

Contrary to popular belief, we do not “reborn” by believing the Gospel and then “mature” by trying hard to live according to Biblical principles.   Believing the Gospel is not ONLY the ONE way to meet God, but also the ONE way to grow into Him—maturity is taking the Gospel deeper.  Some of these things look spiritual and are celebrated by what look like “spiritual” people; but the truth is that these man-made precepts and teachings have no power to change your heart—in fact they can become sinful themselves.   The consistent theme in this letter is the charge to not to be enslaved to the false promises of self-righteous teachings, practices, or disciplines.  Laws and rules may be helpful, but they cannot save.  Mysticism or Charismatic tendencies may be emotionally satisfying, but they often lead to idolatry.  And abstinence or other forms of extreme self-discipline may be healthy, they may even be wise at times, but they must never be connected with holiness.  Any hope for maturity and EXTERNAL reformation, for a joyful life that looks like Christ, is when your maturing work is a focus of your time, energies, and efforts in knowing, believing, and resting in the internal transformation that Christ has already accomplished in you.

Benediction:  Galatians 6.11-18