Last Updated 10.21.2008
For 11/2 “Substance and Shadow” (Colossians 2:16-23)
We find it so much easier to construct a religious system rather than live by faith, empowered by the living presence of Christ within us. I’m not sure exactly why this is so. I could point to all sorts of base motives behind this problem, all of which are probably in play, but the sad reality is that we often create our own religion with its rules and guidelines. Yet no matter how well intentioned these efforts are, they were not given to us by Jesus.
Way too frequently, these often unwritten guidelines about “really being spiritual” become ways for us to feel superior to others in our faith walk. Yet Paul, along with the rest of the New Testament, is emphatic: rather than these rules actually making us more spiritual, they are instead fueled by the flesh — our sense of pride, exclusivity, or our need to identify ourselves as a group around something other than our passion for Christ.
While some wanted to add religious experiences, Jewish traditions, or pagan practices in Colossae, Paul wouldn’t back down. The last part of Colossians 2 focuses on two primary concerns with the “super religionists”:
1. Their wanting to add rigorous self-denial (asceticism) or the rituals of Judaism. Very similar to Galatians 1:3-9 (which we looked at last week) and the book of Hebrews 6:18-10:39, Paul is adamant that adding rules to protect the righteousness of God doesn’t empower us to holiness (2:23). Even the best of these things were only shadows and what we have in Jesus is reality.
2. Their reliance on spiritual experiences that allows one to boast in being spiritual (2:18) or having a special kind of knowledge that no one else has. This spiritual “one-upmanship” is not only unfair and unkind, but to exalt ourselves because of a spiritual experience over someone else is not of Christ.
Paul is adamant; these are all only a shadow, a mere illusion, of what is really found in Christ alone. There is no substitute and no addition. In Jesus is fullness and substance: the source of life while all the other stuff is “pretentious and infantile religion” (notice these terms in The Message in 2:16-20).
The reality is this: these two “spiritual add ons” from the super religionists don’t have the power to change us, but only put us in a deeper hole (2:23). They all rely on us earning our way to God’s grace or become ways we can have bragging rights in the religious pecking order. They are a backdoor for Satan to steal away Christ as the source of our salvation and for us to rely on ourselves, which ends up causing us to fail again and again, rather than developing a relationship with Jesus where he grows and comes alive in us our behaviors and attitudes. (Remember the letter to the Galatians and Romans 7!)
The focus here is to combat the 2 false notions:
- That we need to “build a hedge around” the Gospel of grace to make sure we are and stay holy or we suddenly become more spiritual because we have “rituals of rigor” or rules of self-denial. That we need some kind of special spiritual experience to really reach a higher plain of spirituality than everyone else and understand God’s mysterious grace for us.
- To add anything to Christ as the source of salvation is to lose Christ.
The simple illustration that comes to my mind is the street we lived on for many years in Austin (Salton). On some of the maps, it looked like it went through and provided a short cut to major roads and key places in Northwest Austin. Instead, you came down a major road, then turned off or our short little street, and without warning, you came to a dead end: a huge barrier. It wasn’t a cul de sac so you could turn around, you were simply stuck and had to back up until you could find a driveway to turn around in and try to find your way out to a road that actually went through and connected you to another neighborhood. It was like the person given directions who said, “You can’t get there from here!” While in the hills of west Austin and having lots of trees and decent homes, this was a road to nowhere, a dead end. Something you never expected from the maps when you set out to take your shortcut!
This is comparable to the religious solutions that are often offered us – especially those offered us by those who want to help us become as spiritual as they are! The new Christians in Colossae faced the same kind of challenges and Paul was warning them about these dead end solutions!
We may have a video that gets us into focus first. I will the simple illustration above and then come back to the text of Colossians 2:16-23.
Paul mentions two things that super religionists, aka those of us “churchified” folks, often use:
- Rules that limit our opportunity to sin – self-denial and special days
- Visions and special religious experiences that set us above others (or seminars, or books, or worship styles or whatever)
Bottom line, churchified doesn’t mean sanctified or empowered. We come back to one clear message: Jesus and a relationship with Him as Lord and His personal presence in us through the Holy Spirit is the only thing that will give us victory. I may also use a [Rick Reynolds quote about sexual addiction in this context]
I will track very closely with Daybreak, maybe changing an illustration or two, but the messages will be very very similar.
Jesus challenged and caused problems almost every time he was around the “super-spiritual” of his era, the Pharisees. Whether it was healing someone in the synagogue on the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-11), pointing to the sinner whose prayer was heard above the “superior righteous” guy (Luke 18:9-14), or a direct confrontation of them like he does in Luke 11:37-54 (cf. Matthew 23). Jesus confronted them on making their faith in God into a religion that allowed them to be superior. To me, a huge challenge for us would be to read these passages in the context of us being the ones addressed by Jesus as the “super religionist.” This is not because we are those folks, but because it is so easy for us to slip into that mode and then never have our position challenged.
Why are we so tempted to turn our faith into a religious club?
Why are we tempted to make rules and bind interpretations that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture?
Why are we drawn to special activities and spiritual exercises to define our spirituality — keeping special days, having special diets, avoiding certain activities, and adding guidelines to help us keep from violating the will of God? (For example, the slippery slope argument that if we allow this even though it isn’t wrong, pretty soon we will be doing something that is. Or living by the slogan, “better safe than sorry” suggesting that we’ve got to protect something in ways that God does not demand.
Go back and read Matthew 23 and put each of Jesus’ main points into a personal application for the way we often catch ourselves living our our religion today.
How do Colossians 2:16-23 and Matthew 23 parallel each other?
How does the book of Galatians fit into this discussion?
How would you connect 2 Corinthians 3 and the points Paul makes in Colossians 2:16-23?
How does the book of Hebrews complement what Paul says in Colossians 2:16-23?
What makes it hard to discuss your faith with someone who sees their own visions, dreams, or experiences as more important that Scripture?
In areas of struggle with temptation, how do we understand Colossians 2:23?
Will self-denial help us overcome the problem?
Don’t we have to have a real commitment to overcome the desires of fleshly side?
How does God help us in our weakness to overcome these situations?
Jesus uses a story to remind us that getting rid of things in our lives or denying ourselves certain things in our lives, will not benefit us without putting the right things in our lives (Matthew 12:43-45).
So what is it that we must have in us that helps us overcome?