Monday, May 22, 2017

Guarding Your Treasure (Colossians 2:16-23)

In a periodical called Naval Institute Magazine, Frank Koch writes about the importance of heeding warnings. He writes…

Two battleships assigned to the training squadron had been at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather for several days. I was serving on the lead battleship and was on watch on the bridge as night fell. The visibility was poor with patchy fog, so the captain remained on the bridge keeping an eye on all activities.

Shortly after dark, the lookout on the wing reported, "Light, bearing on the starboard bow."
"Is it steady or moving astern?" the captain called out.

The lookout replied, "Steady, Captain," which meant we were on a dangerous collision course with that ship.

The captain then called to the signalman, "Signal that ship: 'We are on a collision course, advise you change course twenty degrees.’"

Back came the signal, "Advisable for you to change course twenty degrees.”

The captain said, "Send: "I'm a captain, change course twenty degrees.’"

"I'm a seaman second-class," came the reply. "You had better change course twenty degrees.”

By that time the captain was furious. He spat out, "Send: 'I'm a battleship. Change course twenty degrees.’"

Back came the flashing light, "I'm a lighthouse.”

We changed course.

Well, this text in Colossians contains an ancient warning. Originally a warning for the Colossian church which was besieged by false teachers, it still pertains today in a world where the Church is beset by equally sophisticated and deadly foes. Let’s take a look at this warning in a message I’ve titled “Guarding Your Treasure.”


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.” (Colossians 2:16-17; ESV)

Legalism is the religion of human achievement. It argues that spirituality is based on Christ plus human works. It makes conformity to manmade rules the measure of spirituality. Believers, the Bible says, do not need to follow manmade religion because were are complete in Christ, who has provided complete salvation, forgiveness, and victory. Therefore, Paul tells the Colossians, let no one act as your judge. In other words, do not sacrifice your freedom in Christ for a set of manmade rules.

Now Paul’s warning against legalism included basically two areas: diet and days.

Now, in terms of diet, there were evidently those who were saying that the way to God and spiritual fullness would be enhanced if the Colossian believers returned to the dietary laws of the Old Testament. As you know, the Old Testament categorized certain foods as clean and unclean. But when Jesus came, those dietary laws were abolished.

Well, the same applies to days. The Jews had their special feast days, their “New Moon” celebrations, and their Sabbaths. And when Christ came, he fulfilled them all! That’s why verse 17 says that these things are “a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” The things were just “a shadow.” The real thing has now come in Christ and we’re not going back to the Old Covenant baby - it’s done. As my father used to say, “stick a fork in it, it’s cooked.

One of the real problems with legalism is that we rely on something else other than Christ for righteousness. And of course this is silly because legalism is useless against our fleshly nature. It does not save us. In fact, legalism even allows disobedient Christians and even nonChristians to conform to a set of external performance standards that make it look like “oh my, aren’t I holy” on the outside when all the while that person is spiritually dead inside. Legalism is the textbook definition of lipstick on a pig.

Interestingly, Paul doesn’t “Forbid the faithful to keep special days and special diets.” Rather he says, “Do not let anyone judge you” in these things. (v. 16) There is great liberty in what we Christians can do: we can keep days and diets, or forget them. But he rejects the right of anyone to judge or compel another to comply with his own preferences. This is a warning to take to heart, because time and time again as legalism has come into the Church, the Church has become judgmental, joyless, uniform, and shallow in faith. Paul’s point is simple: true spirituality does not consist merely of keeping external rules, but of having an inner relationship with Jesus Christ.

Now, as bad as legalism is, there is another danger equally harmful—the sister error of mysticism.


In our day, the inadequacy of the secular worldview has led to a resurgence in belief in ‘spirituality’ or “mysticism” which has no foundation in Christ. Now, in Paul’s day, there was also a mysticism which was derived from the imagination of the false teachers in the Colossian church and it too had no foundation in Christ. Paul says that the Colossians were in danger of being deprived of their reward and future glory because of these teachers and so he issued a dire warning.

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 [Jesus Christ], from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” (Colossians 2:18-19)

Like spiritualists in our own day, the false teacher’s power to fool people came from their deceptive approach, which is outlined in verse 18.

First, they used bogus humility, delighting in “false humility and the worship of angels.” They loved to act humble and say, “We are not good enough to go directly to God, so we begin humbly with one of the angels, which, if we are in correct spirit, will elevate our requests through the hierarchy to God.”

Further, they claimed to have special visions, going “into great detail about what he has seen.” You see, they pretended to have access to something really special in God that other ordinary Christians did not. Through this, they claimed to be on the inside. And this made the false teachers very proud. They were “puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,” says Paul. Advertising humility, they were filled with huge conceit.

Back then it was all vanity and sham, but even today learning the secrets of the spirit world can be enticing. Tarot cards and fortune telling, for example, are inviting. The whole process is meant to exude mystery, and millions have fallen into the lie. Likewise, the mystic signs of the Zodiac drawn many people into astrology.

The root of the problem is laid bare in verse 19: “He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” The false teachers had (and have) no part in the true Body of Christ. Conversely, this was (and is) the answer for those who want to steel themselves against their delusive teaching. We must hold fast to Christ, the Head.


Spiritual discipline is good. But in the final warning here, Paul cautions against extreme asceticism:

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.” (Colossians 2:20–23)

Sadly, church history is replete with stories of ascetic excess in the rejection of beautiful and good things in the pursuit of God: rejection of marriage, sex, parenthood, the beauty of God’s creation, even rejection of self. But this “self-made” religion does not do any good. In fact, it can heighten fleshly temptation and along with it produce a joyless, defensive approach to life.

Yet, surprisingly asceticism has its own seductiveness. Today, in its Eastern form, it attracts the indulgent, cultured elite. Thousands today have their gurus through whom they make their ascetic “nod-to-God.” Seen for what it really is, this is an expression of independence from God which says, “I’m going to get to God on my own terms, by my own might.” Asceticism feeds the flesh by starving it.

The answer to such delusion is in the beginning of this section on asceticism, in verse 20: we have “died with Christ to the basic principles of this world.” Commenting on the futility of asceticism, the great nineteenth-century Scottish preacher Alexander McClaren wrote, “There is only one thing that will put the collar on the neck of the animal within us and that is the power of the indwelling Christ. Ascetic religion is godless, for its practitioners essentially worship themselves. As such, we are not to be intimidated by it.”

Paul has sounded a clear warning, calling us to look at things as they really are. Several years ago Royal Robbins, a professional mountain climber, wrote an article for Sports Illustrated which demonstrates the importance of seeing ourselves and life as we really are. He wrote:

If we are keenly alert and aware of the rock and what we are doing on it, if we are honest with ourselves and our capabilities and weaknesses, if we avoid committing ourselves beyond what we know is safe, then we will climb safely. For climbing is an exercise in reality. He who sees it clearly is on safe ground, regardless of his experience or skill. But he who sees reality as he would like it to be, may have his illusions rudely stripped from his eyes when the ground comes up fast.


During the 1982 war in the Falkland Islands between England and Argentina, the Royal Navy's 3,500-ton destroyer HMS Sheffield was sunk by a single missile fired from an Argentine fighter jet.  It caused some people to wonder if modern surface warships were obsolete, sitting ducks for today's sophisticated missiles. But a later check revealed that the Sheffield's defenses did pick up the incoming missile, and the ship's computer correctly identified it as a French-made Exocet. But the computer was programmed to ignore Exocets as "friendly." The Sheffield was sunk by a missile it saw coming and could have evaded.

The lack of discernment among Christians today ensures that every junky way of thinking gets right on through to our minds and programs us without any resistance. We can fall to legalism and its attendant self-righteousness, its joylessness, and its judgmentalism. We can succumb to mysticism and develop a proud, elitist spirit which contributes nothing to true worship. We can get into asceticism, thinking it will make us more holy, when actually it will feed our flesh.

The answer to legalism is the continual realization of the grace of Christ

The answer to mysticism is an understanding of how profoundly we are related to Christ

The answer to asceticism is the reckoning that we have died, been buried, and are resurrected with Christ

In essence the answer is where it all began: at the foot of the Cross. All of our theology, all of our preaching, all of our singing hymns together, the disciplines of life experienced in family and relationships are meant to keep us right at the foot of the Cross—simply drinking long and deep from the Fountainhead, Jesus Christ.