You cannot regulate someone into heaven.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Colossians 2:16-23
The false teachers in Colossae were trying to convince the Christians that they needed to follow certain rules and worship practices if they really wanted to be right with God. Paul reminded them that only a heart transformed by the gospel of Jesus could be right with God, and external rules and regulations could never transform a heart.
23 Although these have a reputation for wisdom by promoting self-made religion, false humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
If you're not a really big fan of something, this topic probably won't make any sense to you. But if you are, you can start today's heavy lesson off with some levity.
Based on your fandom, what are some opinions you consider "heretical"? Let me give you examples of what I mean, and hopefully these will spark your own discussion.
If you're a fan of Georgia football, how do you react to these statements?
"I'd be happy to have Nick Saban as my coach."
"Bo Jackson was better than Herschel Walker."
"Georgia probably should have been left out of the 2012 BCS game."
See where I'm going with this?
For comic book fans:
"Capes are silly."
"Superman is overrated."
"Zach Snyder forever."
For cooking fans:
"If it's not real butter, it's not real cooking."
"Only Kingsford briquets -- there should be a gas grill Inquisition."
"Never, ever cook from a box."
If none of those worked for you ... :
"Sock-shoe, sock-shoe? That's just not right."
"If the toilet paper is under, it's a waste."
"Everyone should sit in the same place every week."
Here's where I'm going with this: people have debates over stuff like that all the time. Sometimes we tune it out, and sometimes we latch on. But I worry that we don't always know the difference between a debate that really matters and a debate that doesn't.
So let's shift gears to debates/beliefs about Christianity.
This Week's Big Idea: Heresies that American Christians Believe
[I have mentioned and linked the Lifeway Research/Ligonier surveys ("State of Theology") a number of times this quarter, and it's the gift that keeps on giving.]
Identifying Truth vs. Heresy
Let's actually start with a basic question: what is heresy? Heresy is not necessarily a "lie" -- heresy is defined as that which is contrary to generally accepted belief. In the context of religion, heresy is a belief that runs counter to accepted orthodoxy (in that church's tradition). In other words, a heretic believes his/her own opinion rather than official church teaching. It's not always easy to identify a heresy, as these results demonstrate:
In 2016, 82% of respondents agreed with: “People have the ability to turn to God of their own initiative.”
In 2018, 83% agreed with: “Only the power of God can cause people to trust Jesus Christ as their savior.”
Those statements are diametrically opposed to one another, and yet essentially the same number of people agreed with both. Consider also these:
In 2016, 39% of evangelical respondents agreed with: “My good deeds help me earn my place in heaven.”
In 2018, 91% agreed with: “God counts a person as righteous not because of one's works but only because of one's faith in Jesus.”
In other words, reversing the phrasing caused a swing of 30%. The analysts basically concluded that it is easier to agree with orthodoxy than to identify heresy.
So, here are the results from the 2020 survey -- let's put that theory to the test. I want you to read these statements and decide how easy it is to identify as truth or heresy.
Let's start with how the general population responded to some statements:
76% agreed with the statement: "An individual must contribute to his or her own personal salvation."
62% agreed with: "Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion [and] not about objective truth."
58% agreed with: "Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church."
46% agreed with: “God will always reward true faith with material blessings in this life.”
31% agreed with: "The smallest sin deserves eternal damnation."
28% agreed with: "I depend on Jesus Christ to overcome sin."
Of those, only the last two would be considered Christian orthodoxy (truth). The first four would be heresy. How did you do with those? If you have any questions, please contact me and we can talk them through!
Now let's just focus on those who self-identified as "evangelical Christian":
65% agreed with: “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”
46% agreed with: “The Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.”
42% agreed with: "God accepts worship from all religions."
32% agreed with: "Religious belief is a matter of personal opinion [and] not about objective truth."
30% agreed with: "Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God."
20% agreed with: "The Bible's condemnation of homosexual behavior doesn't apply today.”
21% agreed with: “The Holy Spirit can tell me to do something which is forbidden in the Bible.”
18% agreed with: "The Bible contains helpful accounts of ancient myths but is not literally true.”
Every one of those statements is considered heresy. Note the large percentage of evangelical Christians who agreed with them! (Again, if you have any questions, contact me!)
But then let's look at two more statements:
93% of evangelical respondents agreed with: “Hell is a real place where certain people will be punished forever.”
88% of evangelical respondents agreed with: “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.”
Both statements are orthodox, not heresy. Did you find them easier to identify? If you think so, then that would support the theory that it is easier to agree with orthodoxy than to disagree with heresy.
Why is heresy harder to identify?
Here's my opinion: for us conservative Baptists, orthodoxy is basically taken straight out of the Bible. We can identify orthodoxy because it is familiar to us in words/phrases we can find in the Bible. Heresy takes advantage of nuance and obscurity (getting us to question "what does 'literally true' mean?" or "'forbidden' in what way?"). If you had any "tugs" about any of the heretical statements listed above, then you understand what I mean. (Well, and sometimes personal/popular opinion just runs contrary to what the Bible teaches, and we might be tempted to believe ourselves rather than the Bible. See below.)
That was true in the first century, and that is exactly why Paul wrote this letter. Consider these verses we've already studied:
We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding (1:9)
Once you were alienated and hostile in your minds as expressed in your evil actions. (1:21)
We proclaim him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (1:28)
I am saying this so that no one will deceive you with arguments that sound reasonable. (2:4)
Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition (2:8)
Where We Are in Colossians
We're finally going to cover some of the heresies that these false teachers were spreading in Colossae. As we read them, you may think of things that you learned in churches that might seem to agree with the false teachings. That's why this lesson is so important. I'll try to give you the proper context so you understand what Paul is and is not saying.
It was important to Paul to teach these church members the truth about Christianity so they would not fall victim to the encroaching heresies. The high percentage of Christians today who believe heresies is almost certainly because our churches have not been equally committed to teaching our members the difference between truth and heresy. Sunday School is a great place to do that!
[Leadership note: if someone comes in really hung up about one of those statements above, it's okay to get sidetracked for a little bit. But if it's going to take a long time to resolve, I encourage you to offer a lunch meeting after church to continue that sidetrack. And don't be afraid to say, "I'm not exactly sure how to answer that question -- let me do some research and we can talk about this later!"]
Part 1: Freedom in Worship (Colossians 2:16-17)
16 Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ.
You might have noted that most of the statements listed above focused on beliefs rather than behaviors. We'll get to beliefs in the next section. Here, we start with behaviors.
We've talked about this before. There are two tendencies in man-made religions. One tendency is toward very restrictive behavior rules. Groups like the Judaizers would fall into this category, people who were obsessed with keeping dietary laws and whatnot. It seems that the false teachers in Colossae fell into this tendency.
A second tendency is toward absolute libertarianism, that there are no rules and you can be as hedonistic ("live for today") as you want. Paul went after that group in Romans (particularly 6-7). Both tendencies are wrong -- both are man-made. But in Colossians, the focus is on man-made religions that had oppressive behavioral rules.
[Btw: Hebrews 9 is a great resource to understand what Jews got wrong about the Mosaic Law.]
My guess is that you're going to get some pushback in this discussion. The Bible Belt is famous for its rules against dancing, card-playing, etc., and that's going to be the sorts of rules Paul seems to be going after. We need to understand what Paul is and is not saying.
I'm going to spoil my conclusion here in hopes that it makes the rest of this study easier:
There are two important but separate arguments in Paul's letters:
What is necessary for our salvation? and
What is best for our well-being as Christians?
Here in Colossians, the focus is on salvation, as Paul's "Therefore" should make clear. These false teachers are telling the Colossian Christians that in order to be saved, it's fine to believe in Jesus, but they must also ... keep the Sabbath, or attend such-and-such festival, etc. Paul is simply making it clear that that's a lie. All you need to be right with God is faith in Jesus Christ (see what we've studied in 1:21-23 and 2:13-15, the context for this passage).
What I believe is going to happen in your discussion is a bleedover between those two very separate arguments, and it's going to show up like this: "Sure, I understand that dancing doesn't have anything to do with salvation, but Christians shouldn't dance." Do you see the confusion? The moment someone makes a blanket statement like "Christians shouldn't [x]", it immediately implies that anyone who does must not be a Christian. And so, even unintentionally, they make it about salvation.
And look, this was going on in the very first church -- Jewish Christians trying to impose parts of the Law of Moses on Gentile Christians. Peter finally recognized the confusion:
“Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he also did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?" Acts 15
Why do we have that tendency to want to impose behavior laws on people when it comes to religion?
I think it's the age-old problem with humanity -- we want to have a say in our own "destinies". We want to earn salvation. We want to be worthy of salvation. We're afraid that Christian salvation is too easy (which reveals a huge misunderstanding of how "easy" our salvation was to achieve!, but I digress). We want there to be a visible/tangible way to be identified as a Christian -- how we know we're all "in the club". Kinda like the Pharisees.
When it comes to worship (which is basically the context of verse 16), this confusion can get really ugly:
"I can't go to that church -- they don't have an organ." -- or the equivalent -- "they have a guitar. How can God possibly accept that?"
"That church lets its members go to church on Saturday instead of Sunday -- they're heretics."
"That church doesn't read out of the King James Version; they must be heretics."
"That church's preacher wears jeans. Isn't that heresy?"
"That church doesn't observe Lent. What's wrong with them?"
What other statements like that have you heard? (Or have believed?) Do you see how those statements are getting dangerously close to saying that people in such a church may not be saved? And why it's important for Paul to address?
That's basically what the Colossian Christians were hearing from these false teachers: "You don't keep the Sabbath / you didn't participate in that festival, therefore you aren't really right with God." Paul is coming back with the very clear statement that we are saved through Jesus, not through food laws or religious festivals. And we must never let anyone tell us otherwise! That's what Paul is saying here.
Now -- there's a separate debate over what is best for a Christian. And Paul cares about that, too! That's the other purpose of this letter -- knowing the kind of behavior that most pleases God. We studied this in 1:10-11:
Bearing fruit in every good work
Growing in the knowledge of God
Having endurance and patience
Joyfully giving thanks to God
Yes, Christians should desire to please God, and it would be best for us to behave in those ways. But our salvation is not based on our behavior. (And thank God for that!) Rather, the debate about what's "best" is tied to our Christian maturity, something Paul talked about in 1:28:
28 We proclaim him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
I have personal beliefs about the kinds of behaviors Christians should and should not be engaged in, and I believe that the more mature we get, the more we will tend to agree on those things. But every Christian matures at different rates in different areas. You might think you're more faithful in your church attendance than someone else, but we might discover that the other person is more faithful in evangelism. And a third person who seems not to care much about either of those may turn out to be much more sacrificial in giving. Which of those is "more important"? They're all important!
[Aside: and none of that gets into the really difficult discussion of determining what's best for our spiritual well-being. Dancing may not be but can be an impediment to our spiritual well-being. Same for playing baseball. And anything else. And it's usually deeper than the physical act itself.]
So, let's go back through those examples I gave above and reword them with this new perspective:
"An organ creates an atmosphere that I find easier to worship in, but I understand that not everyone is like me in that way."
"Jesus did not command us to have a church service at 11:00 am on Sundays, but He did tell us that worshiping God should be a priority."
"The Bible was not written in English; I understand that every translation is an attempt to help modern English speakers understand the original manuscripts."
"I want to wear my 'best' to church, but I understand that our understanding of 'best' is entirely conditioned by social and fashion trends."
"I want to live my life visibly connected to Jesus, but I understand that 'Lent' is a human tradition/invention."
Does that distinction make sense? Here's why Paul is so insistent on it: verse 17, "These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ."
"Shadow" is an intangible representation. It doesn't actually exist of itself. Even the Old Testament laws (given by God to Moses) were just a representation of what Christ would do on Calvary. So certainly, any law that a human can come up with, no matter how well-intentioned, is only a shadow compared with the reality that is Christ. In other words, Christ is the dividing line between being right with God and not. Once we start imposing our own rules/laws on ourselves or others, we are placing ourselves in the place of Christ. That's just a terrible idea.
What I hope we come away with from this discussion is an awareness of the difference between what's necessary for salvation and what we think is better for our well-being as a Christian. Paul is going to come back to this idea in the final part.
Part 2: Freedom from Falsehoods (Col 2:18-19)
18 Let no one condemn you by delighting in ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm. Such people are inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind. 19 He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God.
In the first part, we were told not to let anyone judge us (think "criticize"). Here, we are told not to let anyone condemn us (think "deny your claim"). The first part was about behaviors; this part gets into beliefs.
Again, the focus is on salvation -- the things mentioned being necessary for salvation.
"Ascetic practices" is translated "false humility" in the NIV, and it referred to the practice of fasting/deprivation. I think this is the same kind of warning that Jesus gave in Matthew 6:16 -- “Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. For they disfigure their faces so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward."
"Worship of angels" could refer to a lot of things, and I think it more or less means just that. In Roman religion, they would pick a "lesser god" to worship thinking that would earn them humility points. In the pagan world of that day, angels were put in the same category as those lesser gods. No, that doesn't make sense to me, either.
The "visionary realm" is a part of a Greek phrase that's so obscure that most scholars assume Paul was sarcastically quoting one of their enigmatic leaders. (I don't know if anyone uses "Strawberry Fields Forever" or "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" as a worship text, but I imagine that's the kind of thing Paul is making fun of.)
[Teacher's aside: one of the original core doctrines of Pentecostalism was "if you haven't spoken in tongues, you aren't a Christian", and a core doctrine of Catholicism was "if you aren't a Roman Catholic, you aren't a Christian". They've softened in the years since, but those are examples of what Paul was warning us against.]
What's the problem? Those people are "inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind".
Isn't that exactly the sort of thing we hear today? By the people who agree with the heretical statements listed at the beginning? "Isn't it so close-minded to believe that only Christians go to heaven? Isn't the enlightened thing to believe that anyone (sincere enough) can go to heaven?" Or how about "Believing that Jesus is God is such an ancient myth. We're much too enlightened to believe that anymore." Or "The Bible was written so long ago. How can it say anything of compelling value to people in today's world?" They think of themselves as being "more enlightened" but in reality their mind is more unspiritual.
That's where all of these modern heresies come from. "I've had my own vision." "I've had my own enlightenment." "I know today's world far better than any ancient God." Everyone wants to leave their mark on the world -- what bigger mark than to be the one who kills God? Those folks are so self-inflated ("puffed up") as to believe that they know better than anyone else, certainly anyone who believes an ancient book like the Bible.
Let me pick on a special category of person -- the kind of person who invents their own religion (pictured is Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, and L. Ron Hubbard).
Many such people claim to have had a vision. How hard it must be to speak rationally with someone who has "had a vision"!
The clue for identifying such a person is verse 19: their relationship with "the Head" -- Jesus Christ (see 1:18). Does such a person teach truth about Jesus (this is why Paul put such heavy theological verses in chapters 1 and 2)? In the case of the three people pictured above, that would be a hard "No". And so, as far as Paul is concerned, that's that. (And it's an equal "that's that" for all of those Americans who believe the wrong thing about Jesus -- their opinions about truth should not influence Christians in any way.)
Part 3: Freedom to Live (Colossians 2:20-23)
20 If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: 21 “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to what is destined to perish by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines. 23 Although these have a reputation for wisdom by promoting self-made religion, false humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.
I said we would come back to this, and here we are. Let's understand what Paul is and is not saying.
And again, the primary context is still salvation. These false teachers are saying things like "you have to do such-and-such ascetic practice to be right with God", and Paul is explaining why that is not true.
Asceticism (v. 18) is self-deprivation -- "don't taste, don't touch". True asceticism is rooted in the idea that the material world is bad and the spiritual world is good, so we should deny our physical body any pleasure (i.e. we don't want to feed our sin furnace). But those practices cannot have any impact on your salvation. Why? Because they are a part of a world that is passing away. They have no power over God, so they have no power over salvation. It's very simple.
Let's start with a key distinction that Paul assumes we understand: the difference between "God's Christianity" (I say "God's Christianity" because humans have a tendency to add things to our version of Christianity) and man-made religion with respect to salvation. The only "rule" for salvation is that we trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. After all, my little fib from earlier today is just as impactful on my eternity as the worst murder -- all people need the grace of God in Jesus Christ, no matter how "good" they think they are. Those "rules" that people try to impose on you cannot make you right with God. Period.
But there is a second distinction between "God's Christianity" and man-made religion -- that which has to do with behavior that "pleases" God -- namely, the purpose of such behavior. We've talked about this at length: in other religions, people do certain behavior in order gain favor with God; in Christianity, we do certain behavior because we have freely received favor from God. You know this.
Verse 23 gives us one of the most profound observations about religion you will ever read: religious rules, no matter how well-intentioned, cannot change the heart.
And here's what's so important about that: it equally applies to Christians who have swerved into the "rules for behavior" tendency of religion.
You've heard of the "Puritan Utopia" goal. It actually started in Protestant Europe, but we have the most examples here in North America. A group of Christians found a town, and they want their town to have laws that reflect the Bible, so their law code includes things like mandatory church attendance, no cursing, businesses closed on Sunday, women have certain attire, etc. They do so. Everybody in that town behaves a certain way. And the leaders feel good about themselves. "Look at our well-behaved society!"
What's the fatal flaw in emphasizing external behavior? Those rules "are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence." You can regulate a person's behavior, but you cannot change his heart. Only God can do that. The more emphasis you place on external rules, the more people will believe those rules to be necessary for being right with God, and the harder it will be to share the true gospel with them. (The founding generation, the generation who understands the "why" of the rules, is probably fine. The second generation accepts it because it has been imposed but may not believe it for themselves. The third generation, who has not been taught the "why", will either believe it blindly or reject it outright. If you've heard the phrase "its hard to save someone from their religion", that's what it refers to.)
This is what Jesus was cutting to in the Sermon on the Mount. "You have been taught 'do not murder', but I say that anger is murder in your heart." "You have been taught 'do not commit adultery', but I say that lust is adultery in your heart." God doesn't just care about our outward behavior; He cares about what's going on in our hearts. And as we know, only Jesus can change our hearts. (Read 2:9-15 for clarification.)
Here's the thing -- it doesn't matter if the rules being taught are clearly unbiblical, or if they seem pretty biblical. In other words, if the false teachers are saying you have to drink goat's blood, that's pretty obvious. But let's say they teach fasting three times a week. That rule might seem biblical (the Bible does encourage fasting!). But Paul calls it out for what it is -- an external band-aid that does not cure the real issue, that your heart needs to be changed.
Note: a modern-day Christian church that focuses more on regulating behavior than sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ is equally in Paul's cross-hairs.
(And don't miss Paul's not-so-subtle dig at these self-religious people and their false humility -- if we could see into their hearts, we would see some real ugliness.)
So, in summary -- false teachers in Colossae are trying to impose a set of man-made rules on the Christians there, rules that seemed spiritual. Paul reminded them that only Jesus Christ could make someone right with God. "Man looks on the outward appearance; God looks on the heart."
These are some key lessons that still equally apply to us today:
When you regulate your own behavior, make sure it's in response to God's saving work in your life, not in order to obtain that salvation.
When you regulate your own behavior, make sure you're following God's guidelines in the Bible, not something a person made up.
When someone else is trying to regulate your behavior, make sure their reason is solely to help make you more like Jesus.
If you feel the need to regulate someone else's behavior, make sure your sole reason is to help them more like Jesus.
If you left yourself time, end with this discussion: what are "bad" reasons people regulate other's behavior? That might help protect you from making the same mistake of the false teachers. (And by this, I mean motivations like selfishness, pride, and misguided zeal.)
What I hope we come away with from this lesson:
A clear reminder of what it takes to be right with God
A clear understanding of why we care about external behavior
13 For you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. (Gal 5)