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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Title:What Spoils Good Fruit?
Text:Colossians 2:8-23 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Running the race

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

Psalter 15 - God's Glory in His Works
TH 649 - More Love to Thee, O Christ
Psalter 99 - The Righteous and the Evil-Doer 
TH 282 - Lift Up, Lift Up Your Voices Now

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Good vines on good roots in good weather should produce a good harvest. But sometimes there is disease, fungus, and bugs. These spoil the fruit. When the weather is humid, a fungus called black rot grows on the grape, and shrivels it - making it useless. When a vine is infested by the root knot nematode, it forms abnormal lumps. These lumps disrupt the intake of water, leading to poor fruit. There’s a virus called red blotch disease. It forms blotches on the leaves and reduces the quality of the juice. 

When Christians commune deeply with Christ, they will bear fruit. But there are things that can stunt our growth, and spoil fruit. Paul warned the Colossians about this. The false teachers said Christ was not enough; they needed something else. But this something else would stunt their growth. Instead of leading to more faith, it would lead to the wrong kind of faith. It would lead to a lack of fruit, bad fruit, or even dangerous fruit. This is why Paul warned them in verse 8 - Beware, don’t let any man cheat or scam you through human ways of thinking which are not Christian. Today, we want to see what ruins Christian growth when we are deceived.

There are three dangerous things that lead to bad fruit. Firstly, ritualism gives false assurances. Secondly, mysticism puffs up. Thirdly, asceticism is legalistic. And Paul reminds us - only Christ counts. That’s the last point. 

Christians in the ancient world encountered many spiritual errors – often, it was mixing Christian doctrines with paganism to produce something else. The Colossians faced them but so do we.  

The first kind of error we see is ritualism. In verse 16, Paul cautioned the Colossians not to let anyone judge them pertaining whether or not they kept a religious festival or how they observed the Jewish Sabbath. You see, false teachers taught that besides Christ, you must keep all the ceremonies and rituals of the Old Testament. It wasn’t enough to keep the Lord’s Day, love Christ, grow in good works and true holiness. They had to keep the seventh day, observe special ceremonies, and special days. But these rituals of the Old Testament functioned to teach others about Christ, but when Christ came, these things became unnecessary. Verse 17 says that these things were a shadow of things to come - “Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”

In the Old Testament, there were many offerings – these symbolized the forgiveness of sin. But they’re all unnecessary now, because of Christ. They foreshadowed Christ, but Christ is the real body. The body casts a shadow; the shadow’s not the body, only the body’s the body. The shadow may give us an idea of what the body looks like, but it’s not the body. Or, you’re supposed to meet someone from the airport, and you only have their photograph. You use the photograph to recognize the person. But when you've met the person, the photo is irrelevant. You don’t talk to the photo, but to the person. So all these ceremonies were shadows or pictures of Christ. 

But there were those who didn’t stop regarding the shadows, instead, they placed a special value on these rituals and practices. Why? It’s because performing these rituals give the people false assurance that they’re okay spiritually. The prophets addressed this in the Old Testament. In Micah 6, God’s people thought they were okay, because they were bringing their offering, sacrifices, and tithes to buy oil for the temple - but they were unjust, unmerciful, uncaring. And that’s what many people bank on – as long as they’re performing certain rituals, they’re fine. And there’s nothing that would spoil fruit quicker than this. Fruit is borne only when we abide with Christ, not his shadow. When we have a relationship with him that bears forth true holiness and not outward ceremonial washings.  

There are many religions that have such rituals. In Christianity, there’s the sign of the cross, sprinkling of holy water, bowing, an elaborate liturgy. And the belief is this - if you do these things, God will be pleased. They say you’re saved by baptism, you gain more merit on Christmas and Easter. So there is a trust in rituals, ceremonies, special days.

But lest we think we have a right to mock others, look at ourselves? We, too, trust ritual. By merely singing, but not meaning what we sing - we are involved in ritual. By hearing the sermon, but not really listening, that’s ritual. You come to church and shop online, answer messages, google movie plots. By merely uttering “amen” to a prayer but being unconscious of its contents, is ritual. By focusing on the mechanics, but not the spirit - that’s ritual. Just because you come to church doesn’t mean you’re going to grow; it could be ritual.

In Ireland, there’s a famous monument called the Rock Of Cashel. It is the place where every Irish king was crowned. And it is commonly called St Patrick’s Rock. When the missionary Patrick went to Ireland in the 5th century, he preached the gospel. And Angus the King was said to believe. He requested baptism. So on that spot, Patrick baptized King Angus. During the baptism, Patrick leaned on his staff and it accidentally stabbed the king’s foot. When the baptism was over, Patrick noticed blood on the floor. The king was obviously in pain but said nothing. So when Patrick asked him why he suffered in silence, the king replied and said he thought it was part of the ritual. Ritualism gives false assurances.

Secondly, another thing that spoils good fruit is mysticism; because it puffs up.  Verse 18 says, “Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind.” 

This was the Gnostic heresy. Now, there are many different kinds. But the one in Colossae, included a special teaching. They taught that between God and man, there were many levels of angels and spirits, and in order to reach God, you must go through these spirits and acknowledge them. They said - we can’t reach God - we’re not worthy - we need to go through the angels. We don’t dare approach God ourselves, we need angels to mediate. That’s why Paul calls it “voluntary or false humility.”

You can’t find this mystical doctrine in Scripture. So where did they get it from? Verse 18 tells us that they claimed to have visions - to enter mystical realms. They claimed extra information Paul didn’t know about which they got from their mystical experiences. And because they had such insight, it made them proud. They were puffed up. 

Today, you see mysticism all over the Christian church. Many claim to see visions and receive a word of knowledge from God. There are Christian movements that go beyond the Word and its plain meaning, something on which faith may rest, to something that is airy-fairy, and feelings or experience-based.  Gone is the need to study the Scriptures, why study the Bible when I have direct revelation?!

Many Christians are influenced by mysticism. Some Christians are obsessed with spirits. You need to bind this spirit and bind that spirit. If you struggle with anger, it’s because the spirit of anger is strong in your life. If you are struggling with lust, it’s because the spirit of lust is strong. You must pray against it. This is mixing Christianity with pagan superstition.

And Paul says of mystics in verse 19, that they are “not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.”  A person who is influenced by mysticism has lost his connection with the head, which is Christ, and from the whole body, which is the church.

The body functions when body parts are connected to the head. And the body is also connected by joints and bands. John Calvin identifies these ligaments and sinews as the apostles and prophets, upon which the church is built - the pastors and teachers. But if people rely on such strange and mystical notions rather than on the Word taught by teachers of the Bible, we lose our connection with the head and the rest of the body. If we are guided by superstition and other forms of mysticism, we won’t grow. But this mysticism is very alluring. It puffs up. I have power to bind spirits. Through my stretching forth of my hands over someone, I can channel Holy Spirit power! I have a word of knowledge from God for you.

But we must also examine ourselves. This kind of mysticism can also affect Bible-believing Christians. We think that if we pray a certain way, it is more acceptable to God. It is more spiritual. We don’t like simple prayers. We try to emulate the phrases and the formulas we hear. We think it is more spiritual. 

A friend who was studying in Chin Lien Seminary told me this account. There was once a visiting pastor, invited to teach a seminary course on the Christian’s prayer life. The course was very practical and devotional, and very helpful. It gave insight to the students on how they should pray. However, the lecturer, when he prayed, had an unusual practice when he prayed. Sometimes, as we do, we will say “yes, Lord” as as we pray. And he did this in Chinese, “(Hissing breath) ??? [yes Lord]?” Soon, all the students were mimicking him - “(Hissing breath) ??? [yes, Lord]?(Hissing breath) ??? [yes, Lord]?” They thought it was spiritual, devotional, more intimate. Then once when he was asked why he did it, he answered that it was because he had to readjust his false teeth. Mysticism puffs up.

Thirdly, another thing that spoils good fruit is asceticism, because it is legalistic. Asceticism is the extreme practice of Christian self-denial. We all know that Christians are to deny ourselves things that are sinful. But asceticism denies things which are not sinful. They do that because it seems spiritual and they think it makes us spiritual. Paul argued against this in verses 21 and 22.  Why are you subjecting yourselves to these rules - like don’t touch, don’t eat, don’t handle? These are manmade rules. Paul is saying - if you have been saved by Christ from the world and its philosophies, why do you still do these things?  

Every religion in the world has made up these rules.  There are some Christians that say we can’t eat meat on Fridays. Some Christians say that it’s a sin to drink. To be really spiritual, religious people can’t get married. While it may be wise not to eat too much meat or drink too much; they are not sins. So these religious prohibitions are not based on Scripture but human commands and teachings. They may have an appearance of wisdom and spirituality, but they really bring no spiritual value by denying the flesh. True spirituality in inward first and affects that which is outward. You may not drink at all, but you may be a filthy gossip.

There’s nothing wrong with a disciplined life with a godly motive. But we can do certain things to an extreme because we think we can become more spiritual or more righteous because of them. One famous example was Martin Luther, when he was still an Augustinian monk, he used to whip himself and wear chains and even sleep in very cold conditions in order to find peace and salvation for himself.  He thought “don’t be comfortable, that’s a mark of sinfulness.”  

There are some who think spirituality should be expressed in wearing shabby clothes, eating poorly, never having entertainment, never listening to anything but hymns, and never living comfortably. But asceticism doesn’t lead to true spirituality.  Such legalism doesn’t either. Because it produces a false sense of spirituality. So the ascetic and legalistic mindset is of the world, and if we’re saved by Christ, we’re saved from it. Legalism can affect the Bible-believing church as well - in our spiritual disciplines. There have been many who have said that to be spiritual, you must pray for at least how long, on your knees, etc.  In many churches, there are kneeling benches, so that people can kneel while they pray - which is totally legitimate - but what is not legitimate is the rationale some may have that kneeling is more spiritual. 

Spurgeon said, “I have found, in my own spiritual life, that the more rules I lay down for myself, the more sins I commit. The habit of regular morning and evening prayer is one which is indispensable to a believer's life, but the prescribing of the length of prayer, and the constrained remembrance of so many persons and subjects, may gender unto bondage, and strangle prayer rather than assist it.”

The Christian can be affected by ritualism, mysticism, and asceticism. If we are, we miss the point. Christ is the one that makes us holy. And when we miss is, we won’t grow. Our fruits are spoiled, stunted, and destroyed. But Christ saves us from these things too. As verse 9 and 10 say, we must look to Christ, because in Christ is all fullness. Only Christ counts. That’s the last point.

Rituals, mysticism, and asceticism don’t help us. It’s Christ who fulfills our salvation and spiritual life. What’s so good about praying with prayer beads? What’s so good about not eating meat on Friday? You don’t actually become more spiritual. It doesn’t take away sin. It doesn’t cleanse us. It doesn’t protect us from Satan. But Christ does. And what’s so spectacular about spirits and angels? They’re not powerful like Christ who is above them. Whatever angels or spirits - he’s more powerful than all of them. Verse 15 tells us that he triumphed over them at the cross. Verse 9 tells us that in Christ dwells all the fullness of God - he is all powerful, wise, glorious, and spiritual. And whoever is in Christ, is complete in Christ, verse 10 - “And ye are complete in him.”

While rituals don’t take away sin, Christ does. Verse 11 says - “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” Circumcision was an act of removing the foreskin which covered the male privates. It was to symbolize cleansing in the Old Testament. But we are spiritually circumcised - Christ died to remove the sin that covered our hearts. Rituals and secret knowledge don’t do this. Paul says it differently in verse 12. In the Old Testament, the people were circumcised to show what should happen in the heart. In the New Testament, baptism shows that. Baptism, or washing, cleanses the body from dirt. But it symbolizes what Christ does for us - that he cleans the soul from our sins. Being splashed with holy water doesn’t do this for us. We need the flood of cleansing by Jesus. Abstaining from pork doesn’t do this for us. We need the lamb of God slain for us.

Furthermore, he also doesn’t condemn us for present or future sins. Verse 14 says, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” Some Christians are enslaved to manmade rules - as if they make us right before God. And when they break them, they feel guilty. But verse 14 tells us that Christ has removed even the need to keep rituals. He has destroyed them. If he has destroyed these former legitimate rules, why are we making new illegitimate rules? He has forgiven all our sins - all the mistakes we have made, all the mistakes that we do make, and all the mistakes we will make against his law. Christ forgives. 

What are some practical applications we can take from this? Firstly, it’s important to see in our own context the things we wrongly put our confidence in. What are our rituals? What are our superstitions? What manmade laws do we uphold as marks of holiness above true inward holiness? Let us cast away these to pursue after Christ and his holiness. Now, this requires much wisdom. We must be clear what is of Christ and what is not of Christ. But it may not be any particular rituals or superstitions, or even rules. For some of us, it’s the precision of our doctrines. For others, we find comfort in having made it - a mark of blessing is my success in life - and I have respectability - I’m doing okay. And yet for others, it could be the marks of Reformed life - married with children, sitting on a family pew, with a quiet child who takes notes. We easily deceive ourselves.

Secondly, let us adopt a mindset - the I want to grow and bear fruit mentality. I can never assume that all Christians want to grow in Christ. Well, I can - but I know that we are all in different stages - and not all of us yearn for it as we should. And perhaps this is why we are not prepared to do what the Word of God requires of us, in Christ, to grow. You see, it’s no point simply to remove the false assurances without adopting the - I want to grow mindset - and a how can I grow mindset.

But this is the crux. Do you want to grow? Why not? Why wouldn’t you? Christ is dead for your sins. He is resurrected to give you victory. Surely, you know you must grow? Surely, you want to grow? Every branch that bears not fruit is good only to be cast away. In the subsequent chapters, we see that Paul gives us the mindset we need and the practical ways of growing spiritually.

  1. Ritualism Gives False Assurance
  2. Mysticism Puffs Up
  3. Asceticism Is Legalistic
  4. Only Christ Counts

Conversation for Change:

  1. What are some things that falsely give conservative Bible-believing Christians the assurance that they are doing well spiritually?
  2. What examples of mysticism may continue to exist in your life?
  3. What do you think of the phrase - “People say we Reformed are strict, but we are not strict enough!”

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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