Colossians 2.16-23 – Don’t Chase Shadows…
“Therefore let no one judge you in regard to food and drink or in regard to [the observance of] a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. Such things are only a shadow of what is to come and they have only symbolic value; but the substance [the reality of what is foreshadowed] belongs to Christ. Let no one defraud you of your prize [your freedom in Christ and your salvation] by insisting on mock humility and the worship of angels, going into detail about visions [he claims] he has seen [to justify his authority], puffed up [in conceit] by his unspiritual mind, and not holding fast to the head [of the body, Jesus Christ], from whom the entire body, supplied and knit together by its joints and ligaments, grows with the growth [that can come only] from God.
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were still living in the world, do you submit to rules and regulations, such as, “Do not handle [this], do not taste [that], do not [even] touch!”? (these things all perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men. These practices indeed have the appearance [that popularly passes as that] of wisdom in self-made religion and mock humility and severe treatment of the body (asceticism), but are of no value against sinful indulgence [because they do not honour God].”
Our Biblical Context and Understanding
The Bible teacher Derek Prince used to say that when you see ‘therefore’ in the Bible, you need to ask yourself what it’s there for.
The context is found in Colossians 2.8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”
So we should be motivated and inspired by and for Jesus and not by anything else.
Paul was speaking about the Jewish dietary laws, of which there are many, even to this day for Orthodox Jews making it very hard work and not a rest at all. We are not under these laws as believers. Jesus has cancelled the ‘written code’ – and the regulations that are ‘opposed to us’ have been taken away. The Old Testament laws were pointers and shadows of Christ who came to fulfill the Mosaic Law. If the Mosaic Law is fulfilled then we don’t need to be under the rules and of the law.
Andrew Wommack writes, “The real spiritual meaning that these Old Testament dietary laws symbolized was that we were supposed to be holy (separated) unto God in everything – even what we eat.” (Daily Devotional email, 21 May 2018).
Instead of people being free in Christ, there were those who were imposing rules and regulations onto other Christians, especially in light of Jewish regulations around food, the New Moon festival and even the Sabbath. Jesus made clear through the writer of Hebrews in chapter 4 that the Sabbath rest is more than a day, it is resting from relying on your own works. The Sabbath rest is not a day but resting in Christ and his work. But a Sabbath rest (if any Christians actually get one!) is a good idea too.
Paul doesn’t want people to lose what he calls their ‘prize.’ The Amplified Bible describes this prize as our freedom in Christ and our salvation (note the freedom is only found in Christ and isn’t just ‘freedom’ per se, which is never real freedom). Believers are free in Christ. So be free and live free, in Christ. Outside of Christ what passes for freedom is actually slavery to the world.
When someone says something, take a look at that person and their motivations. The Bible tells us that good fruit comes from good trees and bad trees produce bad fruit. But it’s also important to consider who is saying something. Do we follow celebrities? Why? What right have they earned to be followed? Very little.
In the Amplified Bible, Paul calls out these kinds of people as trying to defraud God’s people. Such people have become disconnected with the head, Christ. What does the head do? It thinks and controls the body. We can weed out these fraudsters because they are not thinking like Christ, not acting Christ-like and not following Christ’s lead. The NIV says they have ‘lost connection’. If I’m on the internet and Virgin Media goes down, I get a message on my browser saying lost connection. It means my computer is not interacting with the internet signal sent out by Virgin. So it doesn’t connect, I can’t access information, can’t get online. I know I’m offline because the usual stream isn’t working. Be aware when someone is trying to take you ‘offline’ from Jesus. Without this connection, we don’t grow properly and aren’t nourished properly – just as a plant that doesn’t get enough water, sun, oxygen can’t grow properly.
Although it’s worth saying that if you feel your nutrients are drying up, first take a look at yourself! But a spiritually healthy church will inevitably produce spiritually healthy people, even when we don’t realise it.
Control and lack of trust in God
Clearly things were going on where people were claiming to have heavenly visions that were put in place to control others. These were from their own disconnected minds, not God.
As we see around us under various religious systems and under communism, false religion can ultimately come to dominate and oppress because it depends on rules to control. It becomes about control. Even under UK laws, the law can become the god and the person is thrown aside (Sefo). Whereas Jesus cares about every person and works on us individually. He frees us from ourselves and from sin and gives us the potential to walk in complete freedom in him.
There are still some churches today that preach a message of don’t touch, don’t handle, don’t taste. I had a friend who went to a church and quickly someone there started to control his life. He stopped meeting up with me. When I bumped in to him one day, the person with him guarded two girls who were with them to keep them away from me! This friend ended up having to move away to escape the control.
This is not Christianity; this is not grace; this is not freedom. Who would want to live like that and under that system? Paul warns us to be free of this by knowing who we are in Christ, keeping to God’s truth and weighing people’s motivations.
In a way this shows a lack of trust in God and his Holy Spirit. We become fearful that God is somehow unable to work out his purposes, so we take on the role for him. Except we make a really bad job of things! Or because we don’t trust God, we try to keep things neat, tidy and the way we need them to be, forcing others into that same mould and then becoming suspicious of anything different.
So where do we sit on this scale? Do we try and act as deputy Holy Spirit or do we really trust God?
One of the things that disappoints me about the internet is how some Christians find it necessary to write blogs saying how certain other Christian teachers are wrong, or deceived or false teachers. When I look at the arguments, they are flimsy at best and often betray more about the person writing the blog than those they criticise. I have seen ridiculous accusations, unbiblical comments or theologically stunted opinions. I’ve seen people tear into other ministries and Christians with aggression, ridiculous statements and hostility as if they think they are Holy Spirit deputy. It’s wrong.
Jesus said that people will know him through the love God’s people have for one another. I think God’s heart breaks when he sees Christians tearing into one another.
After the recent Royal Wedding and the incredible preach by the US Bishop Michael Curry smashed the wedding with an incredible talk on God’s love that drew so many in and gave up to 2 billion people the chance to hear the Gospel, it was disappointing to see people tearing into him for his other views. I understand the most important thing has to be that we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us never, even as charismatics think we’re not guilty of judging, religion etc. But let’s not listen to the voices that are.
My own view is that I listen to what people teach, consider it, throw out anything that doesn’t feel right Biblically, but take in what is right. We must remember that God’s Word is God’s revealed counsel to us, it is not God’s complete counsel. The Bible even tells us that there are things that Jesus did that are not recorded. God is not limited to working within our theology of him, although he may limit his work through us, as the Holy Spirit is a Gentleman and works with us according to where we are.
The way ahead: Relationship not Religion
I saw an image on the internet that was trying to be clever against Christianity by picking out rules from the Old Testament and trying to use them to say Christians don’t follow those rules so why do they insist on saying other things are wrong. The unseen allegation was that Christians were hypocrites. It only took a bit of reading to see that everything being said was completely wrong. What they had done was find a bunch of Old Testament commands given to the Jews and made it look like we were under the law still today. Wrong!! So I re-did the image properly and posted it back online. The truth is that we are not under the written codes given to Moses that the people of Israel were under.
One of the great differences between Christianity and other belief systems is that Christianity is not a religion. Religion says ‘do this, don’t do this’ and you’ll be fine, made right with God, accepted. It’s all about the outside of a person. This is even the way our secular society operates. Because of sin, there have to be rules saying ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that’. Without realizing it, society is under secular legalism.
They have to use laws to enforce standards. They are also obsessed with what looks, feels and sounds good (outer) and not the inside.
Jesus came along and did away with the laws that pointed to God but were really about pointing out sin and how we needed a Saviour. God understood that change doesn’t come from the outside but the inside. So God’s plan wasn’t more rules but death. Death to the old sinful man (spiritually) on the inside of every human that says yes to Jesus and a planting of his Holy Spirit in us as a seed, a helper, a life changer – but from the inside-out. When we are born again and filled with the Holy Spirit, God goes to work on the inside of us (which is where he lives) and changes us inside and this outworks to the outside.
Religion is the opposite and it fails every time. Under religion and even in society, the mantra is ‘change what you do and this will change you.’ Religion and society says we have to obey rules and believe certain things. But actually Christ died so that we could be made more free. Man cannot change himself except to a certain degree and cannot make himself right with God. Rules and regulations can limit behaviour but can never change the heart. This is what God’s grace is about: God doing what only he can do and then making that available to us. Man cannot do this without God and any time man tries to make things happen without God (even Christians), then it becomes religion and can only be a shadow of the reality found in Christ.
When we become obsessed with rules, we are looking at the shadow and not at the reality. If you see my shadow, it won’t tell you much about me. It may not tell you your gender or height, let alone your features, your personality, your character. A shadow only ever reflects the person, it is not more important than the person. It won’t help you know the person or understand them.
The message of Jesus and the Gospel is so counter cultural compared to religion and the way society works where everything has to be earned. With God, you can’t earn it and you don’t deserve it. But God gives it freely. We can only get to God through Jesus as only Jesus paid the price to make us right with God. If all roads lead to God, then only reach God through Jesus and his free gift. This is what we’ve been given and it’s the only way to live the Christian life – Christ in you, the hope of glory.
The Inside above the Outside
Many times, we can be in danger of judging others because of how they look, what they wear or what they’re not wearing. We can even sometimes find what appear to be Biblical principles to reinforce what we think.
But Paul and Jesus call us up beyond the outward appearance to consider our inner appearance. How do we look on the inside? Beyond this, we do not judge according to human thinking but according to our faith in Christ.
If a clock is not working or a computer isn’t working, I can clean the screen as much as I like; I can polish it up to look good; I can put a new case on it, or re-paint it. But it won’t change the fact that the clock or computer isn’t working. In order to get it working, I have to get inside and change things internally. That is what Jesus does with the heart. The world around us is obsessed with painting the front and making it all look good but doesn’t think about the inside. The same is true of religion or man-made laws. They don’t address the issue but they try to make the ‘clock’ work simply by giving it a new coat of paint. It doesn’t work.
Grace and Law
Colossians 1.13 tells us that Jesus has transferred us from one kingdom to another. In the same way we have been transferred from the law to grace. As Romans 6.11 says:
And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.
it is what Jesus has done that makes us right with God. Grace is the place where you come to the end of you and God steps in. God has already stepped in through Christ. In Colossians 2.6 we learn that just as we received Christ (through grace), so we continue to live in him (in his grace). We receive Christ as a free gift through what Jesus did on the Cross. He then transfers us spiritually into his kingdom from the kingdom of darkness. In that same way, we then live and move in Christ. When we start to get into works, we minimize the work of grace. Works cannot get us God and have not got us to God. Only God’s grace through Jesus got us to God. So don’t go back to works, to the law. Don’t live according to human ideas, traditions or theories. They are guaranteed to fade away. Stay free in Christ.
It’s amusing when people say the Bible is irrelevant. Really? The Bible has around 1000 promises, of which it’s been estimated that 500 have happened perfectly. We can guarantee the other 500 will too. There are around 16 promises made about Israel of which 12 have come true. There were around 100 prophecies of Jesus that have perfectly come true. Others will do too. The Bible is accurate and unparalleled in terms of its accuracy, its archaeological and historical record and its prophecies, which the Bible alone dares to make. It speaks of creation, of time, of the future and into eternity. It was written by God outside of time for all of time. Living by God’s truth doesn’t just make sense spiritually, it makes sense practically!
This is why Hebrews 4 tells us to come to the throne of ‘grace’ and not to the throne of ‘law’ or ‘works’ !
In Romans 7, Paul lets us know that the law was there to show us that we are sinners in need of a Saviour. The law was a shadow of the Messiah who was to come. In Galatians 5.4, Paul goes further and tells us that if we try to make ourselves right with God through the law then we have cut ourselves off from Christ and fallen away from God’s grace. God has given us freedom from the law so now let the Holy Spirit guide your lives but don’t use ‘grace’ as an excuse to sin. Galatians 5.18 says (NLT) “When you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses.”
Imagine dating someone but saying you were dating their shadow. How weird!
In Matthew 15 / Mark 7, the Pharisees complained to Jesus that his disciples had not washed their hands before they ate. This was contrary to their tradition and rules. Jesus didn’t justify anything. He didn’t need to and neither do we. Instead, he revealed a more important principle. The Pharisees looked at the outside (the non washing of the hands). Jesus looked at the heart and saw hypocrisy where the Pharisees had manipulated a law for their own good, nullifying the word of God for the sake of their tradition.
This was the key point – the Pharisees were more interested in their rules than they were in people (complaining to Jesus about healing on the Sabbath and not the slightest bit interested that someone was healed) or actually in God. Their love of the rules had actually superseded their love of God. Let me urge you not to do the same. Let the church be known for their love of God and people and not try to force people into a box. Just as we are repelled by the actions of the Pharisees, people will be repelled by rules. But what about people’s sin? Is our passion about people coming to meet with God greater than anything else? Do we trust that God is able to change people’s hearts and minds. Let’s trust him more than we trust ourselves.
Patricia King tells the true stories of work with lady boys in Brazil. One of these people was so loved and cared for by Christians that they wanted to know Jesus. Through this their heart was changed and their life turned around.
The interesting thing today is that we live in a highly judgmental and critical society that is incredibly easily offended. When people mess up or dare to offend the system, they are thrown to the wolves, rejected and torn to shreds. We live in a world where forgiveness is not even a word that people want to know increasingly. It is a cold, harsh and uncaring system and world increasingly. And this is why the message of God’s grace is so powerful!
(Story taken from the great book ‘A Barrel of Fun’ by J. John and Mark Stibbe [Monarch Books, 2003] page 76.)
The story is told of a black woman in South Africa who is sitting in a courtroom in a case by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the dock is Mr van der Broek who years earlier came to the woman’s home, took her son. He then shot him and set fire to his body. A while later, he returned and took away the woman’s husband. For months she heard nothing. Then, 2 years later, Mr van der Broek returned and took her to where her husband was, still alive. He had been badly beaten. In front of her, they set her husband on fire. His last words were, “Father, forgive them..” In the courtroom, the Reconciliation Commission ask the woman what she wants done with Mr van der Broek. She replied that she wanted 3 things.. First, to be taken to the place where her husband was killed to have a proper burial. Secondly, she said that she had no family so she wanted Mr van der Broek to become her son, for him to visit her in the ghetto twice a month to spend a day with her where she would simply pour out her remaining love on him. Third, she asked to be taken across the courtroom to embrace Mr van der Broek so he would know he was truly forgiven. At this, Mr van der Broek fainted from the emotion. As he did, the whole courtroom spontaneously broke out in, ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me..’
Visions and Humility
Notice that the Bible doesn’t say that visions from God are wrong or don’t happen. Far from it. But those people he was calling out were lying and faking visions in order to prove their own authority and superior morality and spiritual understanding. But in reality they were puffed out, unbiblical hypocrites.
True humility says without God I can do nothing but through Christ I can do all things! The key is reliance on – and trust in Christ alone. As one speaker says, we are not just human. In our spirits lives the Holy Spirit from God.
I don’t like charismatic excess but I don’t like over use of the Word that quenches the Holy Spirit. I don’t like churches that think they’re the only ones with the right theology but I don’t like those churches where God’s Word is set aside in the name of tolerance or modernism.
What Paul is really saying here is to be wise. He is encouraging us to hold fast to the Word of God and not to chase after useless and false teachings. Now God is working in some extraordinary and miraculous ways across the globe. So never be too hasty to condemn moves of God simply because we don’t understand them or don’t like them, or haven’t seen them before. Remember many things that happened in the Bible hadn’t happened before they happened! I am more fearful of not moving with God than I am of the occasional excess.
Do Not Let
One of the revelations of the Christian life is that God has given us choice. First of all God has given humanity the choice of whether to accept or reject him. He then also gives us further choices, perhaps in what we do as a job etc. But we also can make pro-active choices about what we do, how we live, what we think and what we say.