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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:You are united to Christ, so why be enslaved to any man-made religion?
Text:Colossians 2:16-23 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2014 Book of Praise

Hymn 5

Hymn 63:6

Psalm 131

Hymn 79

Psalm 46:1,2,5

Scripture reading:  Mark 7:1-23

Text:  Colossians 2:16-23

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,

One of the important emphases in Paul’s letter to the Colossians is the believer’s union with Christ.  To remind you, to be united to Christ is to be in him.  To be united to Christ is to be a branch grafted on to the vine.  Union with Christ is an important biblical concept that has enormous consequences for those who experience it.

Our text this morning drives that point home.  We’re a little further in the letter to the Colossians and here Paul is still addressing the false teaching threatening that church.  The exact nature of that false teaching is lost to us today.  There are all kinds of theories, but at the end the most we can say is that it was some kind of strange mix of paganism and Judaism.  The false teaching claimed that Christ was not enough.  You need more than Christ, they said. 

These false teachers tried to dignify their teachings by calling it “the philosophy.”  But Paul showed the Christians how this set of beliefs simply did not compare to Christ and what he has done and what he can offer.  In verses 8 to 15, we read Paul’s positive case for following Christ rather than the vain and hollow beliefs the false teachers were promoting.  In Christ, you are filled.  In Christ, you have died to sin and risen again.  In Christ, you are completely forgiven all your sins.  In Christ, you share a glorious victory.  You have all that when you are “in Christ,” when the Holy Spirit unites you to Christ through faith.            

So verses 8 to 15 present the positive case.  Now in our text, verses 16 to 23, we find the negative case being made.  Here Paul goes on the offensive directly against the false teachings threatening the Colossian church.  These false teachings have to be seen as man-made religion looming over the Colossian Christians.  They’re in danger of being held captive by these destructive teachings.  Here the Holy Spirit wants us all to see that union with Christ has consequences when we consider the alternatives to Christ.

I preach to you God’s Word:  You are united to Christ, so why be enslaved to any man-made religion?

We’ll consider Paul’s:

  1. Critique of man-made religion
  2. Call to continue in Christ the all-sufficient Saviour

Verse 16 begins with an important word, “therefore.”  As someone once quipped, whenever you see a “therefore” in the Bible, you should always ask, “What is it there for?”  Here the word “therefore” looks back to the previous verses.  Because everything that Paul was just writing about is true, here are the consequences.  Because Christ is so much greater and because he is all-sufficient, and because you are united to him, here’s what follows from that.

The false teachers in Colossae had convictions about all kinds of external things, rules and regulations that needed to be followed.  They had rules about what you could eat and not eat, about what you could drink and not drink.  The details aren’t all that clear.  We can’t say for sure what kinds of foods and drinks they were prohibiting.  It might have had something to do with the Jewish laws of clean and unclean, but even then those laws didn’t really say anything about drinking. 

They also had rules about the calendar.  Paul writes about festivals, new moons, and Sabbaths.  There definitely seems to be some kind of Jewish aspect to this part of what the false teachers were saying.  Festivals refer to the annual feasts on the Jewish calendar, feasts like Pentecost and Passover.  A new moon refers to a monthly event on the Jewish calendar.  Sabbaths, of course, refers to the seventh day of the week observed by the Jews.  The false teachers apparently insisted that truly religious people will observe these special days.  If you didn’t, they would stand in judgment over you, they would shake their finger at you and condemn you. 

But Paul says, “Don’t let anyone do that.  Don’t let anyone judge or condemn you because you don’t fall in line with them on these matters.”  Why not?  Verse 17 says that it’s because these things taken from Judaism and blended into this man-made religion are obsolete after the coming of Christ.  Christ has fulfilled all these things.  The Old Testament ceremonial laws pointed ahead to Jesus Christ.  It wasn’t always clear how they were doing that back in the day.  They were shadows.  Shadows give you an impression of the one casting the shadow, but they don’t reveal all the details.  Moreover, shadows come and go, they’re fleeting.  The real thing is permanent.  Christ is the one who cast the shadows in the Old Testament.  He is the real substance of all those things, and if you have Christ, if you are in Christ, you have no need for the shadows anymore.  The shadows are still instructive at some level, but you’re under no obligation to observe them as they were observed before Christ.  His coming has changed everything. 

We see that in what we read from Mark 7 as well.  In Mark 7:19, we find that little remark in brackets, “Thus he declared all foods clean.”  After the coming of Christ, you’re free to enjoy bacon with your eggs and lobster with your steak.  For Christians, God places no limits on the types of food and drink that we can enjoy.  You might choose to avoid certain foods, but you’re under no obligation to.  Further, no one can impose such an obligation on you. 

The same holds true for the calendar.  Brothers and sisters, we’re free from the calendar God designed for the Jews in the Old Testament.  Now someone might say, but what about the Sabbath?  Does what Paul writes here mean that we should never insist on observance of the Lord’s Day?   Context is everything here.  Here Paul is writing about a situation where the Jewish Sabbaths and all their ceremonial regulations were being imposed on Christians.  Already in this time Christians were worshipping on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week.  There was a wide-spread recognition among Christians that the day of rest and worship had shifted because of Christ’s resurrection.  He rose on the first day of the week and therefore Christians began observing that as the Lord’s Day.  Therefore, Sunday observance is not in view here at all.  It would be a stretch to take this passage and use it to argue that we’re free to do whatever we want on Sunday and no one can say otherwise.  This passage doesn’t speak to that.  Instead it speaks to a situation where Christians who already observe the Lord’s Day on Sunday are being told that they must also observe the Sabbath on Saturday and then do it according to all kinds of specific rules and regulations.

Paul’s critique of man-made religion continues in verse 18.  “Let no one disqualify you” -- that means the same thing as “Let no one judge you.”  Don’t let anyone condemn you because you’re not following what they’re teaching.  They not only teach about food and the calendar, but also about asceticism.  What is asceticism?  Asceticism is the idea that you have to treat your body harshly to get some spiritual benefit.  People who practice asceticism often fast and they go and live in a cave by themselves or something like that. 

A few years ago, I was in Kiev, Ukraine.  I visited an Orthodox monastery and underneath were all these tunnels and caves.  Hundreds of years ago, Orthodox monks would go and live in these caves.  They would go inside and then other monks would wall them in, locking them in.  There would only be a small opening for them to receive a bit of food and drink and maybe the occasional beeswax candle.  They spent the rest of their lives in this cave and then died there.  Still today you can see their mummified bodies in these tiny little caves.  People go on pilgrimages to see them.  They’re still there.  These monks believed that by doing this, they could get closer to God.  They wouldn’t have any distractions, no sin, and they could just be with God in the cave.  That’s asceticism.                

So the false teachers in Colossae were promoting that kind of thing.  They also promoted the worship of angels.  That could be evidence of the pagan element in the Colossian false teaching.  There are records of Jewish people worshipping angels around this time too and in the same area as Colossae, but that could be the result of syncretism, mixing Judaism with pagan ideas.  Why would anyone worship angels?  Again, we don’t have hard and fast answers as to why this was going on in the Colossian situation.  Perhaps the thinking was that angels could act as intermediaries, going between you and God, or perhaps you and other higher powers. 

Then there were also mystical visions that they went on about.  The false teachers insisted that truly religious people would have special experiences involving visions.  They would get special access to the spiritual realm through these visions.  And if you didn’t have the visions, you didn’t measure up.  You were just not spiritual enough.  The visions these people allegedly had puffed them up with pride according to verse 18.  They thought they were being super-spiritual, but really they were just showing how worldly they were.  They had a “sensuous mind” – that means that they’re the opposite of spiritual.  They have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit.  So Paul’s argument is:  why would you let such people stand over you and lecture you about spiritual matters?  Why would you give these false teachers any credibility whatsoever?

Paul’s critique goes further in verse 19.  The most compelling reason why these false teachers shouldn’t be taken seriously is that they don’t hold fast to Christ.  They are not holding fast to Christ in faith, they are not united to him, they are not part of the body of Christ.  How could you expect to receive any growth or spiritual benefit from someone who is not united to Christ themselves?  It’s unthinkable.  So why would you ever let them have their way with you and dictate to you anything related to matters of eternal significance?

Some of this is outside of our range of experiences.  We have to admit that some of what Paul and the Colossians were up against is unclear to us today.  As I mentioned, the precise details of what was being taught by these false teachers is still lost in history.  Nevertheless, the general outline is clear and there are some parallels to some false teachings that we might still encounter today.  Let me just take one example.  There is a teaching that says that there are two types of Christians:  there are carnal Christians and spiritual Christians.  There are carnal Christians who have not yet received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and who therefore still struggle with sin.  Carnal Christians might still go to heaven, but they’re definitely at a lower level.  But then there are spiritual Christians who have been baptized with the Holy Spirit, they have been taken to the higher levels of spiritual life.  At that higher level, they have special spiritual experiences, speaking in tongues, visions and so on.  Some “spiritual Christians” will even claim that they no longer sin.  This is held out as the ideal, this is what you should want to be and if you’re not there yet, you’re made to feel less.  Some of the visions that they claim to have seen are outrageous or silly and some contradict clear biblical teaching.   Worst of all, in church groups that hold to this teaching, the gospel is almost entirely or sometimes entirely eclipsed by a focus on these experiences.  In such situations, they are not holding fast to Christ the head. 

Loved ones, the Bible teaches that there is only one kind of true Christian.  True Christians are those who hold fast to Christ the head.  They look to him in faith and trust him entirely for all their salvation and well-being now and for eternity.  The focus of true Christians is always on Christ as he is revealed to us in Scripture, not on rules about food and drink, calendars, ascetic practices, or visions.  We must not let anyone condemn or disqualify us for continuing to insist that Christ alone is to be our all-in-all. 

There is one last section of critique in our text.  We find it in verses 20 to 23.  Here Paul again refers to the regulations that were being imposed on the Colossian Christians by these false teachers.  In verse 21, he might even be quoting what the false teachers were saying.  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.”  There were these legalistic regulations and these were likely referring to food, although other things might be included here too.  The Colossians were hearing that to be spiritual people, to be truly religious, you had to avoid certain things and particularly certain foods. 

Paul argues in verse 22 that this makes zero sense.  Not only are these things human precepts and teachings, but they’re also referring to things that are transitory.  Here he seems to be alluding to what Christ said in Mark 7.  Jesus said that foods don’t make people unclean.  Instead, it’s what comes out after the food has been digested that’s unclean.  In the Greek, Christ literally speaks of it coming out in the toilet.  Paul is more euphemistic or polite in our text, but the point is the same.  Food is really nothing.    

In verse 23, the last verse, Paul shows that the attraction of all this is understandable.  There’s a temptation here that people easily give in to.  These things have an appearance of wisdom.  When you’re really strict about following all kinds of rules, people look at you and see how serious you are about religion.  Some may even admire you for your earnestness and sincerity.  But what are you really promoting if you follow the false teachers?  You’re promoting self-made religion or will-worship, man-made spirituality.  You’re promoting asceticism and severity to the body.  But nothing else.  These things are vain and empty. 

There are two reasons Paul gives why the Colossian Christians should see this all the more clearly.

The first is back in verse 20.  You are united to Christ and in Christ’s death, you have died to the “elemental spirits of the world.”  That expression was used back in verse 8 too.  We saw that it refers to demonic forces.  Paul says that this legalistic and mystical system of religious teaching can’t be separated from demonic forces.  It’s demonic forces that want to distract you from Christ through regulations imposed by people, through asceticism, visions, worship of angels, etc.  There’s a demonic component to all these things and, if you’re in Christ, those demonic forces don’t have any power over you.  So why would you live as if they do?  Why would you start drifting back towards them by even contemplating what the false teachers are promoting?

Loved ones, that teaches us that we should never mess around with any non-Christian forms of spirituality.  Demonic forces are real and they fill and animate non-Christian systems of religious teaching and spirituality.  Brothers and sisters, don’t have anything to do with the occult or with exercises originating in Hinduism or anything like that.  Stay well clear of these things – because you are united to Christ and in Christ you have died to these things.  They have no place in your life and don’t make it seem otherwise.   If you’re united to Christ, don’t flirt with slavery and oppression! 

The second reason is found at the end of verse 23.  All this stuff the false teachers were promoting had no value in stopping the gratification or indulgence of the flesh.  What that means is that these systems might look great, but they can’t deliver on what they promise.  The flesh refers to our sinful human nature.  It can’t be stopped by self-made religion.  Our sinful nature can’t be cured by asceticism.  It can’t be cured by treating your body harshly, whether through exercise or any other means.  These things are hopeless for dealing with your sin.  And sin is your greatest problem, isn’t it? 

These things are of zero value in stopping sin.  In those words, there is an implicit call to look to the one who can stop sin, who can stop the indulgence of the flesh.  Christ is the all-sufficient Saviour and he, and only he, can and does conquer sin.  When you are united to Christ, his blood covers all your sin in the sight of God.  When you are united to Christ, you have his Holy Spirit living in you, and he has enormous value for stopping the gratification of the flesh.  The Holy Spirit of Christ gives you the power to wage war against sin in your life.  He gives you a weapon to use in that war:  he gives you the Word of Christ, the sword of the Spirit.  In your union with Christ, you have everything you need to see real change in your life.  So why would you be letting yourself get enslaved to any man-made religion?  That’s the implicit argument in verses 20-23.

But there’s also an implicit argument to continue in Christ the all-sufficient Saviour in verse 19.    Christ is the head.  The false teachers in the Colossian situation were not holding fast to this head.  But for those who do, there’s a great blessing that comes from that.  If you are in Christ, you are part of his body.  You’re like the joints and ligaments and all the rest, held together in that one body by Christ.  You are nourished by Christ the head.  Moreover, with Christ as the head and you as part of his body, you can expect to grow.  Being in Christ is what gives the growth that comes from God.  So if you want to advance in spiritual growth, continue in Christ, the all-sufficient Saviour.  No man-made religion or spiritual practice can help you truly grow.  No legalistic rules about food and drink or the calendar can help you grow.  No asceticism, worship of angels, no visions, none of that is going to give you real growth as a child of God.  That can only happen as you continue in Christ, as you continue looking to him in faith, resting and trusting in him alone. 

Brothers and sisters, do you want to grow?  Do you desire better and improved spiritual health?  More joy, more peace, more comfort?  Do you want these things?  Then you need Jesus.  No one but Jesus will do.  That was the message for the Colossian Christians and it’s the same message for us.  You need to take this seriously, more seriously than anything else in the world.  Listen:  Christ is an all-sufficient Saviour and don’t ever consider going to anything or anyone else for what Christ alone can give you in abundant measure.

You see, union with Jesus Christ has enormous consequences.  If we are in Christ by faith, then his Word teaches us the right perspective on everything that challenges the supremacy of Christ.  As we conclude, I want to urge you again to hold fast to the head.  Hold fast to Jesus through faith in him.  If you are responding in the right way right now, then you’re saying in your heart with me, “Yes, I hear his voice calling to me to do that.  Yes, I will hold fast to Christ alone because no one else can give me what he gives.  I have everything in Christ and I want to remain in him.  I’m not going to let myself be led astray by false teachings of any sort.  I want Christ and I want him alone.”  AMEN.      


Heavenly Father,

We face so many challenges to our faith.  We face our own indifference and cavalier hearts.  We can be so casual and nonchalant about being Christians.  We face a hostile world that hates you and hates your Word.  We face false teachings about spiritual matters.  There are always threats surrounding us.  The elemental spirits of the world, demonic forces, they’re determined to draw us away from Christ who is our life and hope.  We pray for your help in dealing with these threats.  Please give us eyes to see the dangers that surround us.  Please give us sharp minds to discern the true nature of these dangers.  Please give us stout hearts to resist the dangers.  O God, we pray for you to preserve us and keep us safe from all man-made religion.  Above all, we pray that you would help each one of us to continue in Christ the all-sufficient Saviour.  We thank you for him, we thank you for the gospel.  It’s a treasure to us and we want to hold fast to it.  Please help us with your Holy Spirit to do that today and every day.  Thank you for your Word and we ask that it would remain with us, so that we live in faith and holiness, to your glory.                           

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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