In verse 8 of Chapter 2, Paul admonished the Colossians to “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” In verses 16-23, he elaborates on that statement. Here he fleshes out more fully how the false teachers try to influence the Colossians and what methods they use to draw them away from the gospel. The bottom line is that their theology is man-centered instead of Christ-centered, and Paul wants the believers to know that following after the false teachers means giving up the freedom and grace they have in Christ. Why would anyone who died with Christ to man-centered and effort-based religion live as if the cross did not free them at all?
Paul just finished saying that Christ died and canceled out the certificate of debt that believers owed God because of their sin. Therefore – because of that – the Colossians must not let anyone act as [their] judge in regard to food or drink or special days. The food regulations under the Law and the special days – first day of the month (new moon), Sabbath, festival – were all shadows of what was to come. The Law and its associated ceremonial regulations all pointed to Christ. Now that Christ has come, the special days and the dietary laws are unnecessary (Gal 4:8-11). Christ is the substance of what the Law pointed to. Consequently, no one can condemn believers for not obeying it (or select portions of it).
Apparently the false teachers have commandeered parts of the Mosaic Law to go along with their other teaching. The ceremonial aspects of the Law fit well into their human-effort-centered theology. They teach that the gospel is not enough. Other regulations must be followed and believers must adhere to certain conduct to earn/maintain their salvation.
Paul’s second command regards experience rather than regulation. He warns against believing the false teachers’ claim that they are the arbiters of salvation based on their spiritual experiences and modes of worship. The false teachers argue directly against what Paul said the Colossians have – a share in the inheritance of the saints in light (1:12). They say it is not possible without self-abasement and the worship of the angels. And since the common believers do not have visions like the teachers experience, they cannot know what the spiritually superior teachers know.
It seems the false teachers not only hold to portions of the Law, they also practice a kind of asceticism and some form of mystical angel-worship. They give up much for the sake of God and prove their worth by the hardships they inflict on themselves. And they not only worship God but call on angels (probably as protection against evil forces). They base their credibility as spiritual leaders on the visions they have seen and go into great detail describing them (visions the lesser believers do not experience). Their theology rests on achieving things – achievements that earn God’s favor.
Paul’s final statement in verse 18 is particularly damning and appropriately summarizes everything necessary to understand the false teachers. He says the false teacher (singular – no way to know if he has a particular person in mind) is inflated without cause by his fleshly mind. He is spiritually arrogant for no justifiable reason. He holds himself out as a leader but has no authority other than what he gives to himself. He is a legend in his own mind. His arrogance has no basis.
This really shows what all theology is apart from Christ – a worship of self. Any teaching that leaves out God focuses on man. Humans are inherently self-centered. The only thing that counters that natural self-centeredness is the gospel. When the gospel is removed, religion invariably ends up in worshiping self. This is why the gospel is not really religion. Religion dictates what man must do to earn his way to God. The gospel says that man can do nothing so God has done it all. When man earns his own way then he becomes the focus.
Paul’s mention of the false teachers trumpeting their visions is interesting in light of what we know about Paul’s experiences. In II Cor 12:1-13 he talks almost begrudgingly about being taken up into heaven and seeing things he cannot describe. He says the vision was so extraordinary that God sent a thorn in the flesh to keep him from being puffed up from the experience. He has so much more to boast about than the false teachers, yet he refuses to use it as sign of his spiritual superiority as the false teachers do. It lends more credence to his statement about their being inflated without cause. [See also Jeremiah 23:25-32 for an example of false teachers in Jeremiah’s time using visions to establish credibility – this practice is not new.]
In verse 19 Paul explains why the false teachers are so wrong. Their man-centered religion does not hold fast to Christ. Christ is the head of the church (1:18), and it is only in Him that the body grows. He is the source of life for the body. Because of Him, the joints and ligaments can support each other and cause growth. Without Him the body dries up and dies.
As long as the body is connected to the head, God causes the growth (growth which is from God). This goes right along with what Jesus said in John 15. He is the true vine, believers are the branches, and the Father is the one who cares for it all. Without the vine the branches cannot survive as there is no such thing as a branch without a vine. So Christ is the source of life and through Him God causes growth. God causes those connected to the Son to become like Him. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29).
That means that what the false teachers advocate results in the opposite of what they claim. They tell believers that real spiritual life and real salvation only occur when the regulations they set are followed and the experiences they have are shared. Yet their teaching actually leads to spiritual dryness and ultimate death. They disqualify those who do not measure up to their teaching, yet their teaching ultimately disqualifies anyone who follows it because it cuts him off from the head that gives life.
Notice the reference to joints and ligaments. The head causes the body to grow, but the joints and ligaments hold the body together. This seems to be an allusion to the community of faith. The fellowship of the saints is the conduit through which the body grows. The body must be tied to the head because apart from the head the body dies, but the body itself cannot function if the different parts are not tied together. Paul makes largely the same point in Eph 4:14-16 – the body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
One other item from this verse is worth noting. That Paul says the false teachers are not holding fast to the head may imply that they arose from within the church. This makes sense, as their place in the church would give them more credibility since they claim to be saved and to believe largely what the rest of the believers do. They do not directly contradict the gospel, they just add to it with teaching that must be obeyed to experience true spiritual life and salvation. This makes them much more dangerous than Jewish religious leaders or Roman persecutors. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing and can wreak more havoc than any outsider. Assuming this is correct, it explains why Paul takes such pains to discredit them.
Paul ends his series of admonitions by challenging the Colossians to defend the logic of following after the false teachers. He effectively summarizes his arguments by going right after them about what they know and believe. To this point he has warned them not to give in to the false theology. Now he questions them directly and shows how foolish they would be to obey it.
He points out again that the Colossians have died with Christ (he alluded to this in verse 12). Since this is the case, why go back to adhering to man-centered rules that promise what can only be found in Christ? This is basically a repeat of what he said in verses 16-17. Why go back to earning your way to God when the only way to God is through Christ? Why live as if you are not in Christ and did not die with Him to the whole idea that you must somehow prove your worth to God?
Following commands such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch,” makes no sense because they refer to things destined to perish with the using. Believers have been saved by imperishable blood. Why put stock in what will perish as a means of pleasing God? How does staying away from certain foods or enduring physical hardship or abusing the body add to a believer’s standing before Him? God canceled the certificate of death by nailing it to the cross with Christ (14). God qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (1:12). God delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son (1:13). What is left for self-abuse and self-sacrifice to accomplish?
The big thing missing from the false theology is grace. If religion is all of man then grace is not required. When relationship with God is all about doing certain things or not doing certain things, grace becomes superfluous. It is by grace that we have been saved (Eph 2:8-9), how can it make sense that grace becomes unnecessary once we stand before God (Gal 3:3)?
Paul ends with a very practical observation. He says these man-centered commands have the appearance of wisdom. It is easy to see why he says this. Humans are predisposed to earning salvation or acceptance. It dovetails with our perception of ourselves. Therefore, when someone comes along and gives us rules to follow and experiences to have in order to earn our way to God, it makes perfect sense. Of course we have to work our way to God – that is how the world functions.
The sad irony, of course, is that what they promise is the exact opposite of the truth. Not only do the rules and experiences and self-abasement lead away from God rather than to Him, they also are of no value against fleshly indulgence. They do not even deliver the most obvious benefit of adherence. The focus on self-denial incredibly does no good against sins of the flesh.
How can this be? Because they are not connected to the head and are instead centered on man. Any practice centered on self will eventually end in serving self. And self wants to indulge. Even the most self-disciplined and self-restrained practices eventually end in depravity if they are not linked to God (huge trove of pornography found in Osama bin Laden’s compound, sexually deviant behavior by Catholic priests, etc.). Self-centered commands give in to self. It is why we must live in light of the gospel and the fact that we have died with Christ to the power of sin (11-12), and also live in the Spirit to combat the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16). It is also why false teachers and cult leaders are almost invariably connected with immoral behavior. Religion of self results in moral corruption. [Thankfully Paul does not leave us here. In the next chapter he will explain what does work against fleshly indulgence.]
Do we really understand and celebrate our freedom in Christ? Do we truly live on the truth that we did not earn our way into the presence of God and are now free to live before Him in a relationship based on love rather than wrath and worth? Do we realize that we have the ONLY teaching that says God did everything and we did nothing to bring about our salvation? We do not live under the tyranny of earning our place before God and we do not live a life of searching for meaning. We do not live with uncertainty about our eternal home and we do not earn God’s favor. We are FREE in the truest sense of the word.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Gal 5:1