Little Church, Big Lie – Part 6: Self-made Religion: Colossians 2:16-23

the big lie stencil print on the grunge white brick wall

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. 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.

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. i

A few years after the beginning of the 5th Century AD, a 13-year-old Turkish shepherd developed a great zeal for Christianity while reading the Beatitudes. About a year later, he entered a monastery and began to practice such extreme forms of self-deprivation he was asked to leave. For a year and a half, he locked himself in a tiny hut where it was rumored he passed an entire season of Lent without eating or drinking. As the fame of his righteous super-deeds spread, crowds began to visit this renown holy man to seek his prayers and advice.ii

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But too many people interrupted his holy contemplations. So, Simeon decided to climb up upon a pillar among the ruins of an ancient city where he could further escape worldliness and temptation. There he lived – nine feet off the ground for many years until he began to ascend taller pillars. He passed his final years on a 20-foot-high pillar in his constant desire to prove his devotion to God through his body-punishing lifestyle. Reverence for Simeon grew. He inspired many imitators bent on seeking holiness and purging their worldly temptations.iii

The Church loved Simeon’s radical super-disciplines. They admired his austere lifestyle. He was canonized as a saint in the Coptic Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches. Cities fought over his body so his remains could be parceled out for holy relics. Shrines were built around his final pillar, the ruins of which remain to this day not far from the modern-day city of Aleppo.

Why are we talking about Simeon Stylites? Because he is an example of our human tendency to turn Paul’s admonitions to the little church in Colossae completely upside down. Simeon and all those who followed him were great examples of believers who had only “a half-learned Christ.”iv They understood something of Jesus Christ but failed to see the full truth about him and the obvious implications of trusting into Christ. This is the major theme of Paul in almost all his letters; those to whom he writes have a tiny savior. So do most of us most of the time.

In our day, all you need to do to see this problem displayed is to scroll up to the religious channels on your cable or satellite TV to be overwhelmed by the gullibility of people sending money to support modern-day Phrygian gurus promising health and wealth and fuller life blessings in return for financial sacrifices. They are teaching a half-learned Christ, leaving their followers open to all kinds of religious teaching that “sounds” right while being unbiblical and deeply sinister.

Paul’s concern for the little congregation at Colossae was that they knew Christ only partially. So, he writes to draw them back into the fullness of their union with Christ. He writes in 2:9-10 “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”v You have no need for any teaching that insists you add certain things to your faith to obtain any personal sense of “fullness.” But the Colossian gurus offered what looked like simple solutions to felt needs.

HIGHER LIFE PROGRAMS (2:16-19)

There seemed to have been only certain things needed to earn fullness – certain simple, do-able disciplines they needed to exercise. And we are all very gullible. Evangelical Christians always seem to be on the hunt for some quick and easy way to experience greater spiritual fullness. “Fullness” was one of the advertising buzzwords for the 1st-century gurus in much the same way that “higher life” or “true spirituality” or “holiness” or “winning walk” have become modern-day buzzwords for the half-learned Christ salesforce of our day. Here in this text, we get an idea of the kind of do-able super-spiritual disciplines being sold in the Lycus Valley in Paul’s day.

Diets and Days (2:16-17)

The first higher-life program on the menu involved keeping restrictive diets and celebrating certain days. Dietary restrictions and observance of fasting and feasting days governed the lives of Jews. The Mosaic Law did not contain beverage restrictions (other than a prohibition against drunkenness), suggesting this was not an entirely Jewish set of holy rules. Nevertheless, it seems the gurus were teaching restrictions regarding kosher foods and Jewish feast and fast days as a means of enhancing one’s Christian experience. Remember that only a few centuries before the time Paul wrote, Jews had been willing to die rather than eat an unclean diet or skip a feast or fast day.

The social pressure of these passionate diet and days advocates would have been huge. “Besides, what harm could it do? Maybe it will enhance my religious experience.” We can think in our own day of the socials pressures in American Evangelicalism to hold to a certain set of political beliefs, or to educate your children a certain way, or to use only the “best” Bible translation (whatever that may be in your church circle).

The checklists for fuller Christian experiences are endless today. Some advocate “biblical diets” and natural healing remedies as part of the enhanced spiritual experience. The harm is not in the things or the programs themselves. If you like essential oils and the Daniel Diet, good for you! The harm is in accepting the subtle idea that anything or any program can ever provide you with a fuller spiritual life than what you already have in your union with Christ.

The diets and days of the OT where shadows cast backward into time by the body (substance) of the Lord Jesus Christ. “You don’t need to stare at the shadow,” says Paul, “because Christ has come in all of his fullness!” Paul sums up his command to not be judged by such things, “17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”vi It echoes St. Author’s description of the ceremonial Law as a shadow of heavenly realities (Hebrews 8:5 and 10:1).

Many of you have been deployed into combat areas. Perhaps you took a picture of your family along with you and, from time to time, you would gaze at that picture. But when you returned home, you could hug your spouse and your kids. Why would you want to hug and kiss the picture? The types and shadows cast backward by Christ are only pictures; you have the real substance of Christ.

Asceticism and Angels (2:18-19)

Look at 2:18, “18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions….”vii Next on the program of Phrygian super-spiritual disciplines was rigorous self-denial, perhaps on the order of Simeon Stylites. Likely, this kind of body torture made the sufferer worthy to enter the realm of angels and learn deeper truths from the spirits encountered there. Only the “truly worthy” practitioner of self-denial was fit to receive the deeper truth of angelic beings, said to these false teachers.

In later centuries, the churches in this region persisted in angel worship. The Synod of Laodicea in A.D. 363 condemned the practice. But by the 9th century, it was again considered pious to worship angels; a tradition was invented that the Archangel Michael had diverted a flood and other natural disasters from the region.viii It makes you want to smack your head and ask, “How stupid can these people be?” The answer is, “As stupid as you and I when we put ANYTHING above the fullness of our union with Christ!

All these forms of rigorous super-disciplines only gave the appearance of humility. Paul literally says these gurus are “wanting in humbelmindedness and piety” and are “being puffed up by the mind of the flesh” (v 18). Our sin nature, our flesh, our Old Adam is desperately attracted to keeping all kinds of man-made rules that make us feel better about ourselves and offer us a super-sized spirituality.

Contrast the “fuller knowledge” gurus to Paul, who was caught up into heaven where he heard things a man may not speak – gaining the highest and fullest and deepest of knowledge (2 Cor. 12:3-4). Then he writes, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”ix

The flesh, the Old Adam, loves to steal glory for the work Christ does in us. Imagine how much more the false teachers, without Christ, loved self-glory and the adoration of their followers seeking the fuller life through deeper knowledge.

That’s why so many 5th-century pilgrims traveled to seek out Simeon Stylites; he was thought to have the deeper, fuller truths. Why? Because he was such an excellent self-punisher he surely must be more worthy to receive great messages from God. But the doctrine of the fullness of Christ utterly obliterates the Old Adam’s desire for spiritual glory. The fullness of Christ utterly obliterates the secret wisdom of allegedly humble holy men. If you’re trusting into Christ, says Paul, “let no one decide against you…” because you are already full in Christ. So, the whole Church grows with a growth that is from God, not from human regulations and programs.

Paul wants you to know whenever you hear a powerful teacher there are three questions to ask yourself. First, ask yourself who is being exalted in the message? Does it draw you to the speaker, does it draw you to focus on yourself, or does it force the ears and eyes of your heart to Christ? Who is big and great and glorious in the teacher’s message? Second, what is the teacher NOT saying? Is there something missing in the message? In Phrygia, what was absent from the message was a focus on the fullness and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, what is the effect of the teacher’s teaching? The effect in Phrygia was that the gurus were puffed up, but the body of Christ was not built up to grow with the growth from God.x

OBVIOUS HUMAN REGULATIONS (2:20-23)

In the final three verses, Paul sums up the gurus’ teachings. First, he reminds us these self-focused checklists are part of the elementary principles of the world. They are part of the Satanic philosophy that something other than God is required for mankind’s fullness – like that beautiful piece of fruit hanging on Eden’s tree of judgment. The apostle describes the guru programs as a series of three negative rules.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental [principles] 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?xi

These rules are man-made, not God-inspired because they focus your attention on the earth and not upon the resurrected, ascended, and fully-glorified Lord Jesus Christ. Paul gives us some significant marks of false teaching in verse 23.

First, Paul says false teaching will “have indeed an appearance of wisdom….”xii False teaching will give a means to get your life together. It will offer a way of organizing the Old Adam, the flesh so that sin becomes less outward and obvious. It might offer freedom from debilitating depression, or freedom from a damaging addiction. It may offer a new purpose for your disorganized life. It may promise feelings of peace in a world of chaos.

But false teaching will not have the glorious focus on the fullness of the Lord Jesus Christ. It will be a self-made religion. It will be a made-up religion all ABOUT you and all FOR you. That’s not simply the religious culture of the 1st-century Western world or the 21st-century Western world. That is the overarching religion of all humanity since the moment Adam chose self-fulfillment over the fullness of God. Self-made religion is the elemental principle born in the Garden of Eden and hardwired into the DNA of all humanity.

The function of all self-made religion is to help people manage themselves to make forward progress in life. It’s about self-discipline, self-nurturing, self-improvement, and self-success. But Jesus bids us come and die to the self and live for HIS honor and glory. I still think primarily of Heaven as the place where all my troubles will disappear instead of the place where I will finally perfectly glorify God for all eternity. Heaven is still the place of ultimate self-improvement rather than the place of fully experiencing the reason for my creation – to glorify God and enjoy HIM forever. The flesh doesn’t need self-improvement; it needs to die.

Notice false teaching not only appears wise and is self-made, but it has a focus on the body in the form of asceticism and severity to the body.xiii It is the religion of “don’t do this and don’t do that.” The gurus and their followers thought they were offering God a voluntary addition to his basic requirements—a super-disciplined devotion by which they hoped to earn superior divine approval and be rewarded with a superior lifestyle.xiv But Paul warns that no matter how much “Jesus language” a guru sprinkles on false teaching, it will never be of any value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.xv

How did God stop Paul’s desire for fleshly glory after Paul heard deep divine revelation? He gave Paul a constant affliction for which God’s grace was alone sufficient. In other words, GOD chose how Paul would suffer. Paul didn’t starve himself. Paul didn’t lock himself in a cell so small he could only stand, like Simeon Stylites once did. Paul didn’t sit atop a 20-foot pole for the rest of his life.

It wasn’t some method of self-imposed method of suffering that made Paul appear humble in the face of all the secret revelation he received. No program Paul could have undertaken for himself would have humbled him. God poured out situations completely beyond Paul’s control so that Paul would be in constant dependence upon the fullness of Christ for the glory of Christ alone. Believers have no cause to be arrogant. But if you are, it’s because you haven’t suffered enough yet in situations totally beyond your control.

Paul wants us to ask, do this teacher’s guidelines further the death of my sin nature or merely serve to disguise my sins? Does this teaching build up the fellowship of the church or destroy it? Does this teaching enslave me to those who teach it? Does it focus on man-made regulations or on the glory and honor of the Lord Jesus Christ?xvi

The great tragedy of many of our lives is that we seek ANYTHING other than Christ – any means other than his fullness and our union with him – to manage our self-made religion. But Paul commands us to fix our gaze upon Christ alone because EVERYTHING we need is in Christ and it is all already ours by our union with Him.

Our Old Adam loves lists of things to do to manage the flesh because such lists have an appearance of wisdom. But Paul’s list is short indeed: fix your heart and mind upon Christ. The apostle will go on to show us through commands far beyond our ability to follow that the only way to make real progress is “Step Number One: It’s ALL about Jesus.”

All the fullness you need is found in the Lord Jesus Christ. True enjoyment cannot be found in the self; the self is desperate to turn everything around it into a mere appendage or realm of its own controlling ego. True enjoyment can only be found outside yourself in Christ alone.

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. xvii

i The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 2:16–23.

ii Wikipedia, “Simeon Stylites” accessed 11/15/16 at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simeon_Stylites

iii Id.

iv Sinclair Ferguson, Judged Not, Col. 2:16-23. Accessed 11/16/16 at: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-090306am

v The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 2:9–10.

vi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 2:17.

vii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 2:18.

viii F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), 119–120.

ix The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), 2 Co 12:7.

x Ferguson, op. cit.

xi The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 2:20–22. Author’s modification.

xii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 2:23.

xiii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 2:23.

xiv Bruce, 128.

xv The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Col 2:23.

xvi Ferguson, op. cit.

xvii The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Heb 1:3–4.