The Gospel’s Freedom
Colossians 2:16 23
Freedom in worship (16-17)
Some in Colossae stressed that Jewish dietary laws must be followed. Paul warns human-created laws and ascetic practices undermine freedom in Christ. Even today, some people judge others by what they eat, drink, etc. The legalists of Paul’s day didn’t stop with food and drink; they also examined how Christians treated special days (v. 16), thinking they must worship on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday). Believers also were pressured to observe all the Jewish feasts.
Paul responds to these demands: let “no one pass judgment on you” (v. 18). Take note, there is a grave danger in equating spirituality with human regulations. Salvation is found in Christ alone, not Christ-plus-something. Why will people cling to shadows when they can have the real thing in Jesus? (v. 17). A believer will not prefer the shadow to Christ! But legalists are grace robbers who try to convince you to follow the shadow of man-made rules.
Freedom from falsehoods (18–19)
Paul continues his warning: “let no one disqualify” you (v. 18). The word disqualify is likened to a runner who is not allowed to finish a race because of a rule infraction. Therefore, this person cannot win the prize. According to Paul, embracing legalism results in spiritual disqualification. Why? Because the person does not trust in Christ alone for salvation. Furthermore, false humility draws attention to their man-made “righteousness.” True humility boasts in what God has accomplished through Christ (Rom. 5:1–11).
Although commentaries differ on the interpretation of “worship of angels” and “visions,” it seems clear that those promoting falsehood were using visions and angels to give credence to their teaching. They claimed that severity to the flesh resulted in an ecstatic spiritual experience. In other words, these rigid ascetic practices could transport the spirit into the realm of heightened “spiritual” realities. This falsehood is derived from their diluted “puffed-up” or empty heads, which leads to bondage instead of freedom (v. 18). Paul points out that these teachers are not Christian — their ascetic and mystical practices show they are severed from Jesus. Instead, believers must hold fast to the “Head” (v. 19).
Freedom to live (20–23)
Paul reminds believers in Colossae they “died to the elemental spirits of the world” (v. 20). Note Paul is not denouncing spiritual disciplines or even ascetic practices, but his concern is basing one’s walk with Christ on external do’s and don’ts (v. 21). Focusing on a superior religious experience based on human works undermines Christ’s redemptive work and promotes false humility.
Furthermore, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” discounts the truth that Christ is Lord over all things. Ascetic prohibitions are based on the perishable (v. 22). Why would a Christian elevate the temporal over the eternal? This teaching is idolatry which substitutes the created for the Creator! Why follow human mandates that are passing away when you can follow the eternal truth of God?
Admittedly, to humans this teaching can be attractive (v. 23). Look at the religions of the world, many of which are amassing a large following. But eventually all false teachings fall short by denying the Lord’s singular importance. Again, ascetic piety has no redemptive value because it promotes self rather than Christ. Legalistic concern to abstain from bodily indulgence results in a focus on the flesh.
Even today we often think of “spiritual” Christians as those who have nothing or live in a monastery in abject poverty. Hear me clearly: God does call some people to live in rigid abstinence. However, we must not equate spirituality with God’s specific calling. Salvation is by grace through faith alone. As a Christ-follower, don’t let people tell you that you need more works, extraordinary revelations or an ascetic lifestyle to be “righteous.” If you are looking to these, you are missing out on the freedom of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!