Each Monday I’ll be putting up my sermon notes and audio file for the sermon series from Forest Hills Baptist Church “Christ Over All: A Study from Colossians”. This is an edited copy of my sermon notes, not a transcript of the sermon. You can listen to the sermon audio above or directly at the church’s website. Note: Sermon Audio for this sermon started late. The first several minutes of the sermon did not record.
“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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 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, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. 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? 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 2:16–23, ESV)
From the dawn of the Christian faith, the church has always struggled with adding to Jesus. Every false teaching is some variation or form of seeking to add to what Jesus has done. Teachers will come and argue for new revelations or new rules to follow or promote a self-made religion of works.
God’s grace is so radical that we tend to have a hard time believing it. Are we really saved completely and totally by grace? Don’t I need to do something to earn it? Is Jesus enough, don’t I need to add other ideas and beliefs to him? Do I need to create new rules or have new experiences to be more connected to God?
In our passage today we are going to see Paul take on the false teaching in Colossians and refute it by telling us there is nothing we need that we do not already have in Christ!
1. Do not judge other Christians with man-made rules (v. 16–17)
False Teaching: In addition to believing in Jesus, you must follow strict rules about eating and drinking, celebrating certain festivals, new moons, and strictly following the Sabbath.
Paul’s Criticism: Rules and regulations are but foreshadow to the substance which is Christ.
Paul connects this passage to the last. You will remember he lays the ground work for how we should respond to false teaching. Jesus by his power put to open shame all the teaching and wisdom of men. Jesus, possession all the fullness of God, unites us to himself. As we are joined to him by faith we are die to ourselves and we are raised in the new life of Jesus. Our life is wedded, joined, fashioned, united in Christ. Just as a husband and a wife become one flesh in their marriage convenient, so too do we become one in Christ as our life is united to his life.
Dangers of Legalism
Paul tells us not to let anyone pass any judgement on us because of our union with Christ. If we are in Jesus, than no one can pass judgement on us. Apparently there were some false teachers in Colossae that were teaching that you had to add to Jesus by adding extra man-made rules. We get a glimpse of some of those in v. 16. The teachers seemed to be arguing that a Christian should eat or drink certain things, be sure to celebrate certain festivals and new moons, and be sure to strictly observe the Sabbath.
There will always be those Christians who are more pharisee than Christian. They argue that as Christians you have to add certain rules and actions before you become a Christian. It’s not salvation by grace alone, but its grace plus your ability to keep their man made rules. All the rules of legalism tend to shift a little bit in every generation of the church, there is this tendency to want to add to what it means to be a Christian.
Baptists in particular have been a little notorious for this the past few decades haven’t we? You will here people say that you can’t be a Christian if you have a glass of wine with dinner or that you can’t be a Christian if you smoke or you can’t be a Christian if you dance or you can’t be a Christian if you don’t dress a certain way. You can’t be a Christian if you go to the movie theater or if you listen to any type of music other than church music. Some will even say that a Christian can only listen to certain styles of music
You see it in worship services it comes up again and again with our own list of expectations. All deacons must wear a coat and tie when passing out the Lord Supper. All pastors should be clean shaven. All music in church should only accompanied by a piano and organ. We have to do things in a certain way in a certain method.
Legalism is when our traditions (which can be good things) become fast-hard rules in addition to the Bible’s teaching. Legalism tends to focus on external behavior while neglecting our internal hearts. So its funny we tend to be legalistic about appearance or about behaviors (like dancing or drinking) but we tend to completely ignore things of the heart (like pride or gossip).
So why is legalism a mistake? The reason is because it thinks we can earn God’s favor or acceptance by following certain rules. The problem is that it teaches we earn God’s favor by rule following not God’s grace. So when we begin to add a bunch or rules to the Christian faith that the Bible doesn’t outline, then we begin to add to Jesus and thus create a religion of works not of grace.
Look at Paul’s reason why this rules are empty. In v. 17 he tells us that they are shadows of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Paul is pulling some language from greek philosophy, particularly platonic thought. But the idea of this is, the body and the shadow.
When I was a little kid, around 2 years old, I was out in Texas as my Dad was in seminary in Fort Worth. My parents would take me outside on a nice hot Texas day, but as I was outside playing or going for a walk and then I would start freaking out. I’d start screaming and getting distraught. It took my parents to figure out what was wrong with me, but they began to figured out that the problem was that I was afraid of my own shadow. Little toddler Justin couldn’t comprehend that the shadow is connected and points back to me. The shadow isn’t a separate thing that exists by itself, but I’m the one that’s causing the shadow.
Paul says its the same way with the Law and any other rules and regulations. They all point to Christ. He is the substance, he is the one that causes the shadow. To be a legalist is to fear the shadow and not the one causing it. Jesus satisfied all the demands, rules, and laws in your place. There is no more work for us to do. It is finished.
Paul is teaching us here that the Christian is free when it comes to those things. The Christian has freedom in Christ to eat what he wishes to eat, drink what he wishes to drink, wear what he wishes to wear, you get the point. “For freedom Christ has set us free”.
So why are we free from legalistic-man made laws? Because in Christ we are justified and righteous. If you have been united by Jesus you have received perfect righteousness. Therefore, you cannot earn God’s favor by creating a strict set of rules and expectations for you to follow. God has already given you his favor and acceptance. Therefore no one can judge you concerning food or drink, or anything else.
Free to Pursue Holiness Not Sin
I must exercise one word of caution here. The Christian is completely and totally free in Christ. God’s grace is that radical and scandalous. Yet, the improper response is to say, well if I’m already justified and free, then I’ll go do whatever it is I want to do! I’m getting drunk tonight or I’ll be first in line to the 50 shades of grey movie releasing this week. Our freedom in Christ does not give us freedom to sin. Rather, the Christian has been changed in such a way that his hearts longing is holiness. The Christian is free to pursue holiness.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:1–4, ESV)
2. Do not seek after new religious experiences, but hold to Christ. (v. 18–19)
False Teaching: In addition to Jesus, you must seek after additional emotional religious experiences and new spiritual revelations.
Paul’s Criticism: Christ is the head, from which the whole body gets nourished and is joined together and grows. To seek experiences disconnected form Jesus is to be disconnected from God.
There are those who seem to look down on other Christians because of their spiritual experiences. These false teachers were doing just that. They were looking at the Colossians Christians and disqualifying them because they were not having the same “experiences with God” that they were having. But these mystical experiences with God these false teachers were advocating are extremely dangerous.
We are told that they were insisting on asceticism. What is that? Well its for religious reasons avoiding any sort of indulgence. They avoid any such worldly pleasure or comfort in order to get closer to god. So these teachers were practicing hermit type lifestyles, worshiping angels, in or order to receive spiritual experiences and visions. These false teachers were looking for new revelations and new insights and new spiritual experiences that would accelerate their spiritual growth. They were experience chasers always looking for the next powerful goosebump type moment. They were seeking for new things to add to the Christian faith and new insights in visions. Paul says that these false teachers became puffed up, looking down on Christians because they were not having the same “spiritual experiences” and “intimacy with God” that they were.
Paul tells them to hold fast to Christ the head. He is the source of all spiritual growth. There is no need to abandon Jesus to go look for other spiritual truths or experiences. As a Christian, united to Christ, all the fulness of God has been given to us, poured into our hearts as the Spirit of God indwells within us. Paul tells us that spiritual growth happens as we stay connected to Jesus, the head, not abandoning him to look for something else.
Paul’s illustration here is very helpful for us. Jesus the head of the body, keeps it nourished and knit together in unity. He joins it together and he causes it to grow. So Paul’s criticism of the false teaching is this: to seek experiences disconnected form Jesus is to be disconnected from God.
The image Jesus gives us of the vine in the branches from John 15 continues to be helpful for us as we think about Paul’s point here. Jesus tells us that he is the vine and we are the branches. When we remain connected to him we have access to spiritual life and power that comes from Christ as the source. If the branch is removed from that source of spiritual nourishment it will quickly die. So these false teachers were leaving the vine of Jesus to go seek nourishment elsewhere. The only problem with that is this, only in Jesus is their spiritual life.
Spring will quickly be coming an one of the great things about spring is flowers! Daisies, roses, lilies, the list goes on and on. What happens though as soon as you cut that flower from the plant? It begins to die. Slowly and surely its losing its life because it is no longer connected to its source of nourishment. The same thing happens when you cut a branch on the tree. It might look alive at the moment, but it will eventually wither and die. Those who seek spiritual experiences and revelations apart from Jesus too are disconnected from the head and will thus die.
The emotional experience cycle
Many Christians have bought into this false teaching here of looking for the next spiritual experience. I remember in my high school years in particular when I was a young Christian trying to learn what it meant to follow Christ. So much of my relationship with Jesus was tied to spiritual experience. It seemed like I was dependent on some emotional moment or big spiritual conference or event to help me feel close to God to help grow. So may relationship with God was like a roller coaster. When I went to a youth event or a conference I felt connected to God and when I got to my normal everyday high school life, God seemed far away. I found in my heart to begin looking to the next big spiritual experience to cause spiritual growth in my life.
Here is what I began to realize and here is what I’m still learning, because I’m united to Christ and he lives in me I can live every day in closeness and intimacy with God. I don’t need some mystical event to cause closeness with God, I’m already close with God because the Spirit dwells within me. I’m united to Christ! So the key to Christian growth is not looking towards some outside spiritual experience, but understanding deeper the experience of Grace that God has given me in my union with Christ. The key to Christian growth is by staying connected to the head, Jesus by daily staying close to his word and abiding in Jesus.
This is one of the dangers I see with some of our more charismatic brothers and sisters. They are brothers and sisters in Christ, but I do think they tend to over emphasize spiritual experience sometimes to an idolatrous level. It’s all about the next emotional event, speaking in the tongues of angels, etc. As I’ve participated in worship with more charismatic brothers sometimes I leave scratching my head asking, “Were we worshiping Jesus or were we just chasing some sort of experience?”
So it is becoming more common to import mystic ideas into Christianity. We start looking for a new Christian book, a new bible study, or a new guru to helps us deeply experience God. We begin to chase after anything other than God as revealed in his word. We think we need something new to add to help us in our Christian life. Jesus and the Scriptures are just simply not enough.
A Word on the book “Jesus Calling”
On extremely book that represents this idolatry of the experience is an extremely popular devotional book called “Jesus Calling”. This is a devotional book that is written as if Jesus is speaking directly to the reader. But the author Sarah Young describes her writing of this book, and her comments reveal the danger of this book, and why it should be avoided by Christians. Listen to this quote from the author Sarah Young on the creation of her book:
“The following year, I began to wonder if I, too, could receive messages during my times of communing with God. I had been writing in prayer journals for years, but that was one-way communication: I did all the talking. I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day. I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believe He was saying. I felt awkward the first time I tried this, but I received a message. It was short, biblical, and appropriate. It addressed topics that were current in my life: trust, fear, and closeness to God. I responded by writing in my prayer journal.”
The book is written as if Jesus is speaking to the reader, but the author Sarah Young makes a far more audacious claim that Jesus is actually speaking through her. She sees that the Bible is sufficient and she needs new revelations she needs a new spiritual experience in addition and a new vision.
Why do I bring up this book, because doesn’t this book illustrate exactly what Paul is warning about here in Colossians? There will always be those who claim to have hidden insight into God that others lack and those who seek to forsake Christ for mystical spiritual experiences.
So a quick word to those of you who use this book as a devotion or something like it. You don’t need Sarah Young to channel a new word to you from Jesus. You have the word of Jesus right here in the Scriptures! It is more than enough. Growth in Christ comes when we are connected to our head Jesus Christ. We don’t need to leave the vine to go searching for new revelations or new experiences to add to Jesus. He is enough!
3. Do not think you can change yourself by rules. (v. 20–23)
False Teaching: The source of true change is to submit to a strict rule system and avoid anything worldly so that you can change yourself.
Paul’s Criticism: True change happens by God as we press into our union with Christ, not through self-made religion and worldly regulations.
Paul then asks a rhetorical question in light of these false teachers in v. 20. The question is this, “If in Christ you died to the world, why would you still live in according the the ways of the world?”
Paul then sums up some of the common phrases of the false teachers. Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch! We must avoid everything and by avoiding everything we are able to get close to God! Paul tells us that this philosophy made by men may seem like wisdom, but its actually not. Rather, it is simply promoting a self-made religion that cannot in any way change our hearts. It is of no value when it comes to stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
The Idol of the Self-Made Man
Americans tend to have a ideal of the self-made man or woman. We like to think that we can change ourselves and we can fix it if we only try harder or get more disciplined. We like to think we can pull ourselves by our boot straps and make ourselves a success. But the ideal of a self-made man is impossible when it comes to true and deep spiritual change.
These false teachers thought they could create change in their lives by following rules and regulations, but Paul says this self-made religion has no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. No matter how you mange your external behavior true change comes from our union with Christ. True change comes from a heart transformed by God’s grace. We are changed from the inside out, not the outside in.
As a pastor I get to spend a lot of time talking to people about their struggles, sin, and issues. I’ve noticed we are so quick to want an easy 3-step answer to our problems. We want a 3-step program to solving our marriage problems, fighting sexual lust, dealing with our drunkenness, or solving our financial problems.
Next week we will get to explore this idea more thoroughly as we start Colossians 3, but we must understand how change works in the Christian life. Change in us is caused by God as we connect ourselves to Jesus. Change happens to us by the Spirit as he deepens our love and relationship with Jesus. We cannot change ourselves, but rather we must depend on God to change us!
Much of what’s called preaching today in churches isn’t proclaiming Christ but promoting a self-help, self-made religion. It encourages you to solve your own problem and gives you 5 steps to a better life. A lot of what’s called preaching is simply the heretical cliche of “God helps those who helps themselves”. Here is what we have to understand, we cannot help ourselves.
We cannot save ourselves by rules, and we cannot experience God by fabricating spiritual experiences, and we cannot change ourselves by our own might. We cannot add to Jesus. He alone is all we need. We must recognize our need for a savior. We must become more aware that it is only by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we have forgiveness and new life. Jesus is the source of our salvation. He is the only way to experience God and he is the only one who can cause really and lasting change.
If you are not a Christian today, I invite you to turn from your sins and trust in this Jesus who gives you life.
If you are Christian, do not let anyone judge you or disqualify you. In Jesus you possess the fulness of God. You have his righteousness. You have the same relationship to God the father as Jesus the son has. You can change and be made new all because of Jesus Christ. So do not rely on yourself and do not try to add to what Jesus has done. May God put to death any efforts to self-made religion and led us to fall on our knees this morning wholly dependent upon Jesus who is Lord over all.