Legalism Can Be Lethal (2:16-23)
This paragraph is probably the most difficult one in the book of Colossians to interpret. It is also difficult to apply, given the fact that the false teaching that provoked Paul to write what he did doesn't find a perfect counterpart in our day and time. But there are enough parallels between what the Colossians faced in the first century and what we face today to make our study of this text relevant and meaningful.
Perhaps the best way to unpack this passage is to provide you with a summary of its argument. I encourage you to carefully read the text as it is found in the ESV below, and then to prayerfully read through my brief synopsis of what I understand it to mean. In subsequent meditations we will return to this paragraph several times to focus on specific items that are of special concern for us today. Here then is Colossians 2:16-23.
"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."
And now for my summation of what Paul is saying.
The false teachers claimed that they were able to attain a heightened form of spirituality and holiness independently of Jesus Christ (v. 19). At its heart, then, this false teaching advocated a pathway to fullness and favor with God that refused to rest satisfied in all that we have in Jesus Christ alone (similar to what Paul said earlier in 2:1-10).
In order to achieve this elite status, they insisted that a person must follow a rigorously ascetic approach to life. This entailed abstinence from strong drink (most likely wine) and certain kinds of food (perhaps meat) (v. 16a). One must also be meticulous in the observance of certain religious festivals and holy days (v. 16b).
This particular form of asceticism required that one deny himself basic bodily needs and be willing to endure other forms of physical mistreatment (vv. 18, 23; I can't help but think of Silas, the albino Opus Dei monk made [in]famous in Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code").
The leaders of this movement had created a long list of proscribed activities from which one must be diligent to abstain (vv. 21-22). If a person proved faithful in abiding by these extra-biblical and ascetic practices, and engaged in fervent worship of angels (v. 18a), one might expect to receive religious visions in which things inaccessible to the ordinary believer are seen and experienced (v. 18b). All this served to mark them out as spiritually superior when compared to the average individual.
The apostle's response to such alleged "religious" behavior is pointed and unequivocal. He tells us that we should not let such people judge us as inferior or disqualify us from attaining the ultimate prize (i.e., fellowship and acceptance with God) simply because we don't follow their instructions (vv. 16, 18). After all, Old Testament religious festivals and holy days were a mere shadow pointing to Jesus Christ in whom they are all fulfilled (v. 17). In other words, if we have him, we don't need them.
As much as you might think that this sort of "religious" commitment is the height of spirituality, it is in fact the product of fleshly and ungodly thoughts (v. 18) and is the result of refusing to seek strength and guidance and growth from God through the person of Jesus Christ (v. 19).
After all, if you have died with Christ (as vv. 11-15 indicate you have), why would you want to go on living as if the world and those demonic spirits that seek to control it are in charge of your life (v. 20)? So resist their efforts to enslave you (v. 20)! Fight against the inclination to submit to their demands and decrees (vv. 20-21). They are obsessed with religious activities and material things that will ultimately decay and perish and have no place in the life of the age to come (v. 22a). Furthermore, their approach to "godliness" is man-made; it didn't come from God (v. 22b). They made it up themselves to promote their own religious agenda (v. 23).
The allure of such behavior is that on the surface it looks so spiritual! It appears wise and effective in gaining control over one's fleshly desires (v. 23). But it does no such thing. Afflicting the body or demanding of oneself practices that the Bible nowhere endorses may look like you are uniquely committed to God and on your way to defeating temptation and conquering the impulses of your flesh, but it is all an illusion (v. 23).
Clearly Paul is addressing a particularly lethal form of legalism that was threatening the life and freedom and joy of the Colossian church. Our next task will be to unpack particular items in this spiritually destructive perversion of true Christianity.
Free in Christ,