Coaches today, at all levels of athletic competition, will often deliberately get themselves kicked out of a game as a way of motivating their team. They may well have to pay a fine and perhaps lose the respect of certain fans, but they regard it as worth the price if it will serve to light a fire in the hearts of otherwise lethargic and apathetic players.
When Paul tells the Colossian Christians, "Let no one disqualify you" (v. 18a), he used a word that in ancient times often meant something along the lines of, "to render an adverse decision against someone," or "to act as an umpire against you," hence "to declare you disqualified." Paul's point, if I may be permitted to stretch the athletic metaphor, is: "Don't let anyone throw you out of the ballgame for allegedly having violated rules that God has never imposed."
On what basis did these legalists dare suggest that the Christians at Colossae had failed to meet the standards of true discipleship and were therefore spiritually disqualified?
F. F. Bruce, at least in part, answers this question by reminding us that "some people love to make a parade of exceptional piety. They pretend to have found the way to a higher plane of spiritual experience, as though they had been initiated into sacred mysteries which give them an infinite advantage over the uninitiated. Others are overprone to be taken in by such people, for this kind of claim impresses those who always fall for the idea of an 'inner ring.' But (says the apostle) don't be misled by such people" (117). Don't let them disqualify you.
Paul mentions five things characteristic of this sort of "spiritual snobbery."
First, they insist on "asceticism" (ESV; v. 18a). The word here is the one typically translated "humility" in the New Testament. Obviously, though, Paul employs it in a negative capacity. The NASV renders it "self-abasement," the idea being that people willingly embrace lowliness and even suffering to enhance their appearance of piety. It is, then, a false humility (and is translated this way by the NIV), the kind in which a person proudly wears a medal for being so meek!
A few have argued that the word could also mean fasting and other forms of bodily rigor and self-deprivation that would set them apart as especially committed and thus uniquely worthy of honor and praise. In fact, in Colossians 2:23 Paul again uses the word "humility" and associates it with "severe discipline of the body." If that is in Paul's mind, he would be referring to what Jesus denounced in Matthew 6:16-18 ("And when you fast [indicating that he expected his followers to do so], do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. . . .").
So, let's be clear on this. If Paul is referring to fasting (and it's by no means certain that he is), he is not denouncing the practice per se, but rather its perversion. If fasting, or any bodily discipline, is unduly elevated as an essential mark of true spirituality or is employed as a means of parading our piety before others and asserting our superiority over them, it must be denounced. But if it is pursued for the right reasons and practiced according to biblical guidelines, it can be of immense spiritual benefit (see Piper's excellent book, "A Hunger for God", as well as Chapter Eight, "What to Eat when you're on a Fast" in my book, "Pleasures Evermore").
Second, they are engaged in the "worship of angels" (v. 18b). This is a notoriously controversial statement due to the ambiguity of Paul's words. I'll try to briefly explain the options for its interpretation.
On the one hand, it could refer to the worship that the angels themselves offer to God (cf. Revelation 4-5). If so, the false teachers were claiming to be extraordinarily spiritual because their worship of God was not in association with that of other, merely human, participants, but was an elevated and exceptionally unique experience in which they joined with the angelic hosts in heaven to praise God.
I'm not inclined to accept this view for two reasons. First, although it is grammatically possible it is not probable. But second, and more important, why would it be regarded as illicit for Christians to join with the angels in the worship and honor of God? On what grounds would a select few claim that they alone had this privilege? We are told in Hebrews 12:22 that we "have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering . . ." The latter may well refer to angels engaged in worship. And there is no indication in Revelation 4-5 that John was in danger of sinning were he to have praised God in the midst of the myriads of angelic hosts who were doing so. So, I find it a stretch to say that Paul was denouncing the idea of worshipping with angels. This would only be grounds for rebuke if it were a claim made by an exclusive and elitist inner circle who insisted they had an access to the heavenly celebration which other, lesser saints, did not.
Then, of course, Paul could mean that these heretics were worshiping angels, giving to them the praise and honor that only God is due (cf. Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9). However, if this were the case, why didn't Paul more severely and explicitly denounce such a practice as the blasphemous idolatry that it is?
There is another option. David Garland points out that "some have claimed that the Colossian errorists understood these angels to be involved in creation and the government of the world, and they worshipped them as their link to God. These angels could be regarded as malevolent and needing appeasement or as benevolent and bestowing blessing. Their so-called 'worship' may only have involved propitiating them to ward off their evil effects or beseeching them for protection" (177).
In other words, the word translated "worship" could well mean something more along the lines of "invoke" or "conjure." These folk, then, are guilty of engaging in the somewhat magical solicitation of angels to ward off evil or to provide physical protection or to bestow blessing and success on their daily endeavors.
In any case, there was in Colossae (and often times in our own day) an excessive and inappropriate preoccupation with angels and their involvement in human life that Paul regarded as detracting from the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ. We would do well to heed his warning!
Third, they made their case for super-spirituality based on alleged visions they had seen (v. 18c). Perhaps they claimed to experience these visions as a result of extensive fasting and bodily self-discipline or even while caught up in the rapturous joy and ecstatic swirl of angelic worship (depending again on what that means, of course). In any case, they perceive themselves to be members of an exclusive club of spiritual elitists on the strength of bizarre and supernatural experiences. Only those who've "been there and done that" are truly "qualified" to stand in God's presence.
Once again, a word of qualification is in order. Paul's denunciation of their "visionary" experiences is not a blanket indictment of all revelatory encounters. Paul himself had visions (cf. Acts 18:9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10), as did Peter (Acts 10:9ff;) and Ananias (Acts 9:10ff), just to mention a few. Indeed, Peter described revelatory visions to be characteristic of the work of the Spirit in the present age (Acts 2:17ff.). Paul's concern, therefore, is with elitist claims based on alleged visionary experiences that people use to "disqualify" so-called "lesser" saints. These are purported supernatural encounters that lead not to godliness but to arrogance, as the next point makes clear.
Fourth, they are "puffed up without reason" because of a "sensuous mind," or more literally, "the mind of the flesh" (v. 18d). I find it instructive that it is possible to be engaged in numerous "spiritual" activities of a profound supernatural orientation and yet be utterly controlled and driven by the flesh! Beware of those who are constantly parading themselves and building their "ministries" (as well as their bank accounts) on the basis of repeated extraordinary miraculous experiences (again, without denying that the latter occasionally do occur).
Fifth, and finally, their fundamental problem, as v. 19 makes clear, is that they seek their spiritual strength and sustenance and guidance from something other than Jesus Christ. But God has ordained that true growth, authentic godliness, and a life that pleases and praises him is derived from a conscious dependence upon and drawing of nourishment from the head of the church, Jesus.
In conclusion, I believe in fasting, the ministry of angels, and revelatory visions. But when these (or any other religious activities) are pompously cited as signs of a super-spirituality and exploited for personal gain and fame, we would do well to heed Paul's counsel and warning.
Holding fast to the Head!