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Daniel was a college friend of mine. Actually, we were also teammates on the college track team. He was a disciplined long distance runner. Though congenial, he was, seemingly by nature, serious and focused.  He was from a small town near my home so we had a few things in common. Daniel was, however, closed off and difficult to really get to know. He shared little about his life and kept things on the surface. Little did I know, below the stern demeanor was a past and present of doubts, questions, and disappointments. That was until he finally opened up to me.                                     

I don’t recall what triggered his catharsis but the story spilled out of him one winter day. His father had been a Methodist minister for many years – faithful to his family and church. One evening his father didn’t come home. After hours of worry the family finally fell asleep. The next morning they found him – passed out on the couch downstairs with a half empty pack of cigarettes and a fully empty bottle of whiskey lying on his stomach. He never explained what had happened and Daniel was never told later of the mysterious developments. The next Sunday he resigned from the church. Soon thereafter his father disappeared and my friend, to that day, didn’t know of his father’s whereabouts.  Daniel was 14 years old. He had been deserted and, we would surmise, his father has abandoned his faith. 

It has been over 20 years ago so I don’t know how the drama ended. I hope the outcome was the restoration of Daniel and his father. The entire incident reminded me of one very minor New Testament character – Demas. We know almost nothing about him other than he deserted his friends and his faith. He is mentioned by Paul in relation to Luke (Colossians 4:14) and Mark (Philemon 3:24) but he is most infamous for his desertion. Second Timothy 4:10 explains, “for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia”. 

The phrase that struck home to me was, “because he loved this world”. We all know the allure and magnetism of our secular culture – the pleasure found in the present that gives no credence to the reality of judgment and eternity. It appeals to our carnal, self-centered, and fleshly nature. Our society screams to us that the temporal nature of this world’s charms will satisfy us. But they don’t: We know because we have tried them and they left us empty and guilty. Tragically Demas chose the world over Jesus. But beware – we are all just as susceptible. 

The other text that came to mind was written by the apostle John: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19).  It is a sobering warning about apostasy – the forsaking of our faith. This passage clearly states that those who desert and never return were never among God’s chosen, His redeemed. Their permanent desertion was proof that their faith was false. Clearly some who wander never return. This is a thought worthy of serious consideration as it has eternal consequences. 

The good news is that Jesus welcomes those who have strayed, temporarily captivated by the world’s enticements and temptations. There are many scriptural stories that give us hope as we return. The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus and subsequent restoration (Luke 22:31-34; John 21:15-19) are two poignant examples. In His grace, He lovingly embraces those who have wandered but eventually return. He even prepares a rich feast to celebrate our homecoming. 

As I mentioned, I don’t know the final chapter in the saga of Daniel and his father. But God does. However, I can speak from personal experience that, having briefly lost touch with my Savior, there is hope for Daniel’s father. Despite my own angry and rebellious desertion fueled by an attraction to this world, God was looking off in the distance for me as I stumbled home in despair and brokenness. Once I realized that He was the only thing of true and lasting worth the journey back, though painful, was well worth His infinitely valuable presence in my life.

People are leaving the institutional church by the droves; wounded, offended, and sickened by what they perceive  as a distortion of the New Testament church model. Chagrined to the point of anger, they lash out at the abuses (many of which are real) and forsake assembling with other Christ-followers in any organized and consistent fashion.  Due to the often ugly human element involved in any type of church structure (and that would include the self-contradictory and false “no structure” model) they choose to become isolated drop-outs and pursue some form of spiritual existence apart from any fellowship with believers.  In truth, much of what they feel and say is valid. What concerns me is that removing one’s self from all types koinonia and a community of faith (no matter what the model) is not a Biblical solution. And the potential consequences are serious.

In Hebrews 10:25 believers were instructed, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” The type of meeting to which the author referred was actually a get-together of Christian believers (see the book of Acts for numerous examples of Christ-followers assembling – especially check out Acts 2:42 and Acts 4:32-37). Any unbiased interpretation of this passage confirms that the early Christians were being called to continue fellowshipping and worshipping together. Although the church is called by various names and titles such as the people of God, the kingdom of God, the temple of God, the bride of Christ, and the body of Christ throughout the New Testament, the original Greek word for “church” is ekklesia. The word means “the called out ones.” This term predominantly applies to a localized assembly of those who profess faith in and allegiance to Christ. It can also designate the universal church (Acts 8:3; 9:31; 1 Corinthians 12:28; 15:9) which includes all true believers everywhere: past, present and future. In any case, these “called out ones” are God’s chosen people (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1). 

Some err in defining Christ’s church because we have come to view it as an institution and not a spiritual reality; as an organization and not an organism. Many think those large, cross adorned buildings with an organizational hierarchy, well-paid staff, praise band, and a collection folks that gather weekly define “church.” This is the “church” folks often reject. But a building and its contents are not the church. They are only evidences of Christ’s spiritual body.  This means the church of Jesus is any gathering of believers that is centered on Him; any time, anywhere, in any form.

Understand that church is not what we do; church is what we are! The church is the individual believer and the gathering of believers in active participation in God’s kingdom. Yes, the most powerful demonstrations of the church tend to happen when it gathers, but those gatherings don’t always look like modern denominational models. We do well to remember that Jesus said, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). 

When professing Christians reject this more accurate non-institutional definition of the church, we see an inherent contradiction. All Christ-followers are called to be and do for Christ. Therefore, rejecting the church is actually forsaking His body (I Corinthians 12:27). Simply put, true Christ-followers can’t quit the church. If one is “in Christ” he or she is, by definition, in the church: We are Christ’s temple, Christ’s Bride, Christ’s Body.  We are even told we have been, ” made … to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God” (Revelation 1:6: 5:10).

Therefore, we should desire to be assembled with fellow believers. Loving our brothers and sisters in the Lord aligns with loving our Savior (Matthew 22:37-40). Why? Because we need to encourage one another. We all need to be supported in our faith, and worshipping and learning in community facilitates that process. As they say, “no man is an island.” Paul pictures this by admonishing the church at Colossae to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). So we see gathering together is a demonstration of our participation in Christ’s body and is necessary for viable kingdom living.

In parting, let’s return to the technical definition of the church—“the called out ones.” As believers we are called out of something (the world) and to something; Jesus and each other. Both of these ideas are critical components in Christ’s redemptive purpose. If we don’t experience both then maybe we have given up more than the institutional church. Maybe we have given up on growing our relationship with Christ.  That thought has an ominous ring to it.

The issue here is not one of the structure or model of the church. Being the “called out ones” demands that we are compelled to be with other believers.  Not only is gathering together a command but it has substantial intrinsic benefits.  In that fellowship we find communion with other believers elevates our communion with Christ.

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4). 

In a most staggering statement Paul claims that those who have died to self and been made alive in Jesus through saving faith are “hidden with Christ in God”. This means that we are not our own any longer but have been purchased and are now owned by God through to work of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 6:20). Amazing! But what else does it mean to be “hidden with Christ?” 

First it means that He is the source of our spiritual life. Though a mystery to those outside of Christ, Jesus is our life. He is the initiator and sustainer of our faith (see Hebrews 12:2). He is the power and strength that baffles a lost world when we experience His joy, bask in His pleasure, and live a life that is inexplicable other than a divine intervention and purpose. He radiates His life through us because we are His and He is ours. 

Do not take hidden to mean unseen. On the contrary, the fruit of our lives is to be seen in order that God might be glorified and praised: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). The best way I can explain it is to use the picture of a fruit tree. The roots (as in the Vine analogy of John 15:1-6), which are the foundation and source, are hidden. But the limbs (or branches) and what they produce is visible for all to see. In this sense, we are hidden in Christ (He is our root and source) yet His nourishment and strength is demonstrated by the bearing of fruit that publicly magnifies Him. 

Being hidden also suggests security. The tense of this verse implies the on-going and everlasting effects of the work God has done for us in Christ. We are “hidden” is such a way that we can never be separated from Him and His love (see Romans 8:37-39) and we can never be snatched out of His gracious grip (see John 10:28-29). To me, no story better captures this than Moses encounter with God in Exodus 33. Moses asks to see God’s glory (v. 18) and God responds, “And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (v.19). Knowing that Moses could not yet see the His full glory, God tells him that He will hide him in the cleft of the rock, “and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by” (v.22). 

And here is the grand connection: because we are hidden with Christ we are destined to be glorified with Him (Colossians 3:4). When Paul says that we “will appear with him in glory”, he is not talking about heaven only. He is also talking about an experience! This is a promise that we will share in the glorified life of Christ: “and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:17-18). In other words, not only will we see the glory of Christ but we will also be made to experience and participate in it! 

And how can this unfathomable truth be so? Because He is our life! We have died to self, been raised to walk in newness of life with Him, are hidden in His strengthening and sustaining power, and being moved toward our ultimate glorification with Him. Jesus as our life means that we have been given a dynamic and irrevocable union with Him. Our identity is inextricably intertwined with His. In other words, when we honestly proclaim that ‘Christ is my life’, have surrendered ourselves to His life within us, and live to make Him look glorious (see Romans 11:36) then, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (1 Peter 1:3-4)!

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). 

Our typical methodology for fighting temptation and encouraging obedience is tragically misguided and ineffective. We have long proclaimed the awful consequences of sin (which is true), exhorted Christ-followers to “fight with all their might”, and screamed that sin is wrong, wrong, wrong!!  In other words,” just don’t do it!” We are under the false impression that if we describe all of the ugliness of sin in the most graphic and horrific terms we will frighten folks into some sort of fearful obedience. This approach has shortcomings on several levels. 

  • First, sin is fun (see Hebrews 10:25) and the allure of the world, the flesh, and the devil is both ubiquitous and strong. We easily ignore the long-term consequences of sin and opt for the short-term pleasure of succumbing to our carnal desires. Then we pray like crazy for forgiveness!
  • Secondly, this practice puts the focus on self and our “ability” to will ourselves away from our temptations and “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and…run with endurance the race that is set before us…” (Hebrews 12:1). As we all know, we can’t consistently summon the power in and of ourselves to consistently “be holy, [as God is] holy” (1 Peter 1:16). As a matter of fact we can’t do it at all. So, usually such a self-generated pursuit of righteousness ends in exhaustion, defeat, discouragement, and in extreme cases, abandonment of the goal.
  • Thirdly, whatever short-term “success” we might have using this “I did it my way” approach produces a joyless, Pharisaical form of religion that has little attractiveness to the Christian or unbelievers. Who would want to live under the tyranny of a self-induced, burdensome, and futile religion when the greatest pleasure and power can be found in a person, the person of Jesus? 

That is the solution we find in Colossians 3:1-2. Paul’s remedy? Replace the temporary pleasure of sin with the greatest and eternal pleasure of Jesus. He says not to rely upon your own efforts but “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” and to focus our hearts and minds on our heavenly treasure found in Christ.  This is what will diminish our cravings for earthly things. Paul says that experiencing the unparalleled joy and pleasure that can only be found in Jesus accesses His supernatural (not natural) power to avoid temptation and be obedient. This model for living a life fully pleasing to Him puts him in the center and at the helm. This focusing on His beauty and majesty serves to deflect us from those things that would drag us down (to earthly, carnal things) and pull us away from heavenly things (Jesus as our Savior, sustainer and source). This is what Paul is implying when he opens verse one with “If then you have been raised with Christ”. 

In other words, when we are treasuring Jesus in our hearts and minds – “seek the things that are above, where Christ is…Set your minds on things that are above” – all the pleasure of sin pales in comparison to what we have in Him. Let me use this inadequate but, hopefully, helpful example. When we “see” Jesus through the eyes of our hearts and we envision the indescribable loveliness of His life, death, and resurrection (do you see that in your mind’s eye?), can we imagine being attracted to anything that would dishonor Him? In other words, when our hearts and minds are fully focused on Him it becomes quite difficult to be lured away by the sinful pleasures of this life. Only when we take our “eyes” off of Him do we begin to be drawn to those things that, in comparison to Him, are ugly, dangerous, and even deadly. Only when our minds are fixed on Jesus are we compelled to magnify Him by a life that is empowered by His omnipotence in and through us. 

This is why Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20) and earlier in Colossians, “Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27).

“Jesus Wept”. It is the shortest verse in the Bible, yet one of the most powerful. He had just encountered the grief-stricken Mary mourning the death of her brother, Lazarus. We find the account in John 11. Even though we know that all of this transpired for God’s glory and the story had a happy ending, we still see Jesus crying along with those in pain. Amazingly, He did so even though He already knew that all would end well. 

Jesus understood emotional trauma. Isaiah foreshadows Jesus when he says, “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53: 1-3). We also see Him weeping over Jerusalem just before He was to die there (Luke 19:41). 

We understand that He had to experience these things to be a sympathetic High Priest for His people. I believe this is what the writer of Hebrews is suggesting: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses…” (Hebrews 4:15). And I think that His sympathy goes beyond just our weakness in temptation that the last half of the verse refers to. 

Why? Because Isaiah 53 continues: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53: 4-5). We see the Suffering Servant as one who ministers to our pain and suffering through His own. 

Although I believe that both of these passages (Hebrews 4 and Isaiah 53) primarily refer to His redemptive work of removing His children from the deserved eternal punishment for our sin, I also believe they portray His compassion for our hurts and sadness. He can sympathize because He experienced real pain and sorrow for us. 

Also, we see evidences of His compassion elsewhere. Four times in Matthew’s gospel alone we see that He has compassion on people. There we so many that He looked at with a tender heart as He was moved by their circumstances. Of course, God, His Father, in the same sense, sovereignly demonstrates divine love towards His own people: “And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19). 

So what does this mean to us as His children, those whom He has chosen to have compassion on? I believe that it means, beyond the forgiveness of sins, He cries with us, desires to give us comfort, and He conquers for us. I believe this message is a significant part of Paul’s words to the church at Corinth: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” (1 Corinthians 1:3-5). 

No doubt the tears will come. But for His children, the God of compassion and the High Priest of comfort is there for us. Yes, He promised that in this world we will have pain but He also promised us eventual victory in Him – “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In other words, despite our trials, we have peace, hope, and victory in Him. 

How is that? He now intercedes on our behalf. And He demonstrated His worthiness to do so by weeping, understanding sorrow, being familiar with grief, and suffering in our place. Surely He carries our sorrows now and forevermore. So, I believe I most fully experience His gracious compassion when I’m at the foot of the cross gazing upon the irrepressibly beautiful One who cries with me, comforts me, and conquers for me. “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance” (Psalm 42:5, NKJV).

“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). 

Asceticism has been defined as “extreme self-denial and austerity that releases the soul from bondage to the body and permits union with the divine.”  Although many in the church could use some self-discipline, wrongly motivated, asceticism is a very dangerous form of legalism and can be inherently prideful. Paul speaks of a godly form of this concept in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 but his is not the context of Colossians 2. Here we see that this form of “self-made religion” has no value in drawing us closer to our Lord. Clearly, it can do much to keep us from Him by negating our dependence on Him. In fact, it is a form of slavery (see Galatians 4:9). We are to enjoy (not abuse) the wonderful things God has created for us (see 1 Timothy 4:1-5). 

This passage is concerned with those who promote a lifestyle and behaviors that deny and punish the body as a means of enhancing one’s relationship with God. Church history has shown us some extreme examples of this. Flagellants is “a term applied to the groups of Christians who practiced public flagellation as a penance. The practice supposedly grew out of the floggings administered as punishment to erring monks, although flagellation as a form of religious expression is an ancient usage. Among the flagellants it was an extreme expression of the ascetic ideal. Self-flagellation as a penance was approved by the early Christian church. However, the flagellant movement itself did not appear until the 13th century, and it was not until c.1260 that the flagellants grew into large, organized bodies.” 

The foundation for this kind of movement or practice is that the body is evil and that such extreme self-punishment and regulations becomes a pathway to holiness. Without denying spiritual discipline (tragically in our Western culture all forms of over-indulgence have been glorified) Paul counters this philosophy by stating that these taboos will “all perish as they are used” (v. 22). In other words, those prohibited practices or those required activities are just material anyway. They will soon be gone And they do nothing to grow our spirituality and intimacy with God. 

That God is not the source of such legalism is clear in this passage. These ideas are “of the world” (v. 20) and “according to human precepts and teachings” (v. 22). These teachings may seem to be wise – “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom” (v. 23) but “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (v. 23). Here we see again that the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart. Religious exercises and man-made regulations do not justify us before God. Instead, our righteousness is found in that we have died and been made alive in Christ alone! 

Paul’s ultimate point? Rules and regulations do nothing to keep our sinful flesh at bay. And, in a real sense, this legalism springs from the prideful and carnal nature of man. In other words, ritualistic religion (as opposed to relationship in Christ) is the out-working of the flesh. Since this kind of wrongly motivated “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” mentality fails to inhibit our sinful urges (and can actually exacerbate them) and is ineffective in making us more like Jesus, then what does? It involves taking our eyes off this form of self-righteous, material, and earthly approach to experiencing God and being obedient to Him. 

The clear answer is found later in this letter to the Colossian church. Paul exhorts them that, “[since] then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). In other words, keep your hearts and minds on Jesus (see Hebrews 12:2). Christ alone is our righteousness and He also is the only source of power to walk in a way that fully pleases God. No strict adherence to extra-biblical teachings can do this. Only the all-sufficient Jesus can! So let us not listen to the condemning cries of the legalist but, instead, look to Jesus, our hope and our helper. Only with our hearts and minds fixed upon Him we can honor Him by living out godly obedience through His infinite strength and not our own finite and futile efforts.

“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, 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). 

When Paul was saying “let no one disqualify you” he uses verbiage that suggests that the church at Colossae should not let anyone render an adverse judgment about them as if they are not qualified in Christ. In other words, do not let anyone condemn you, and thus infer that you are disqualified from the faith for violating rules that God has never imposed (see Matthew 7:1-5). This type of “spiritual superiority” is not to be tolerated and, in a practical lesson for us today, Paul identifies some of the characteristics of those who demonstrate this form of Phariseeism: 

  • These legalists practice a form of false humility. Paul is using the word asceticism in a way that has a very negative connotation. In other words, they embrace a superficial form of self-abasement (that is the NASB rendering) in order to project a perception of religious piety. The NIV correctly translates this “false humility” reminding us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:16: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Thus we see this kind of religion for what it is; hypocritical and man-exalting. Their attempt to show meekness is actually an attempt to win the honor of men. 
  • They were enamored with the presence and power of angels. They saw something else beyond Christ to not only worship but aid them in their spiritual endeavors and safety. Much akin to the modern hyper-Charismatic practice of “posting angels” they saw something outside of Christ (and the Holy Spirit) as their guide and hedge of protection. In other words, they endeavored to demonstrate greater spirituality by needing, or having, something more than or in addition to God’s Word and His Son. 
  • These heretics were also prone to visions or extra-biblical revelations that made them seem spiritually superior. They perceived themselves to be part of a club of mystical elites that were engaged in supernatural encounters that gave credence to their condemnation of others who didn’t have such ecstatic experiences. It is not that such experiences can’t happen but nowhere in scripture do we see them as a tool to diminish and deny the faith-experiences of others. 
  • These false teachers were full of pride (“puffed up”) because of a carnal or sensuous mind (literally this reads “mind of the flesh”). They were engaged in numerous spiritual activities and denied themselves many things yet their minds were controlled by the flesh. This should serve as a warning to be discerning and honestly introspective. Just because someone has all of the outward evidences of dynamic relationship with Jesus or an active, “successful” ministry does not mean that they aren’t inwardly controlled by fleshly and carnal motives (see Matthew 6:1-4). 
  • In verse 19 we see the fundamental problem. These deceived and deceiving legalists are seeking spiritual sustenance, guidance, growth, and strength from something other than Jesus. True godliness and walking in a manner fully pleasing to Him is found only in the conscious, intentional dependence upon the head, Jesus. All else is just empty religion and ritual and has no power to enable us to live a life that exalts, honors, praises, and glorifies the one from whom all real spiritual vitality flows. 

This is a good time for a “heart check”. Who has qualified us before God? Who will sustain us? Who is the source of the power to love fully, live obediently, and serve in a way that magnifies God? If it is something (abstinence or spiritual practices) or someone (yourself, a family member, or a teacher) else than Christ, and His indwelling Spirit, we are well on your way to becoming like those hypocritical, superficial legalists that both Paul and Jesus castigated! We do well to remember the convicting words of Jesus:  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:21-23).

“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). 

The false teachers that had weaseled their way into the Colossian church claimed they could attain greater holiness and be more spiritual apart from utter dependence on Jesus. They advocated a form of special favor and elitism that defied that we are made complete in Christ alone. Rigorous asceticism (abstinence from certain types of food, like meat, and drink, such as alcohol) and the observance (performance) of certain festivals and holy days was the means to reach a greater degree of “religiosity”. I’m sure the list of prescribed activities, or avoidances, was even longer than the list found in Colossians 2:21-22. All of this undermines the all-important nature of grace. 

The concept of grace, or unmerited favor, always threatens our prideful human nature. It does not allow us to boast in our own efforts, ingenuity, or insights. Grace, by its very nature, challenges our instinctively human response of self-sufficiency and our ability to gain acceptance by God. How? The very nature of grace demands that all of the glory, credit, and honor be given to Christ alone for what he has done and contradicts that we have done anything worthy of God’s favor (Ephesians 2:8-9). When we accept the true gospel we must reject self-reliance and self-justification and trust only in the all-sufficiency of Jesus in His atoning work. Humility and surrender are the hallmarks of those that have been placed in Christ by the compelling, irresistible drawing of God the Holy Spirit (Matthew 5:3-5). However, it is this affront to our carnal, prideful nature that typically causes the rise of legalism where the true gospel of grace is proclaimed. 

I believe these false teachers were going beyond scriptural parameters for indulging in food and drink and the observance or holy days and festivals. These ideas were not about moderation and discipline (which is the mantra of the New Testament) but about total abstinence or involvement as a means of justification before God. In other words, they were making up rules that went well beyond the boundaries of God’s instruction in order to promote some sort of condescending and condemning view of those who didn’t follow their rules. If this sounds eerily like the Pharisees, it’s because that’s exactly what it is – hyper man-centered religion designed to exalt the superficially pious and the power of spiritual egomania (see Luke 11:41-45). 

Paul’s retort? “Do not let them judge you!” He makes it clear that we have right standing before God not based upon any form of self-righteousness or personal merit but in Christ alone. Paul is unambiguous that we are free from the judgment of man-initiated rules and regulations and are free to live within the parameters of God’s Word. And we walk in a manner worthy of Jesus not to prove ourselves to Him but to honor Him by a love-motivated and Spirit-saturated adoration for Him. We do not stand condemned by the laws of men; instead we are liberated by Christ to live a life that is pleasing to Him. 

In order to further underscore his disdain for the law and legalism, Paul refers to these things as “a shadow of things to come”. They had their place and the law exposes the sinfulness of our hearts and demonstrates our need for a savior (Romans 3:20). These shadows pointed to the Light of the world, Christ (John 9:5). The “things to come” that removed the need for that law was a New Covenant and it was brought to fruition and fulfilled by Jesus. This is where our righteousness is found. And the positional righteousness He gives prompts us to be obedient but only obedient to His Word and teachings and not man-made exaggerations or distortions of the New Covenant. 

Are we free to abstain? Yes. Are we free to participate in religious holidays and festivals? Yes. But we are not required to do so. And no authority, other than scripture and the Holy Spirit, determines our practices and behavior. So let us beware of ritualism and judgementalism. Let us not turn from liberty to legalism: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Let us not return to shadows and types and take our eyes off Jesus. For what His grace has provided is enough. Jesus is enough.

“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15). 

Paul reminds us what our primary battle is: “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). This reality should not be pridefully ignored nor should it become an unhealthy and unholy obsession. Though real and dangerous (see 1 Peter 5:8) we must know that Satan and his demons are defeated foes. Yes, these evil forces are still active and our spiritual battle still rages but, in the end, we will stand victorious in Christ.  

Scripture is saturated with themes of war and battle. In Ephesians alone Paul uses numerous military terms and metaphors; armor, stand (as in Custer’s last), struggle, rulers, powers, forces, belt, breastplate, shield, arrows, helmet, and sword. I definitely think he wants us to get the picture that we are in a contest that is a face to face conflict to the finish (which is what this Greek term “struggle” used in Ephesians 6:12 means). But our adversaries are not what we might think. They are powerful, dark spiritual forces of evil that are charging to crush our faith and conquer our souls. Have you ever experienced the attacks of these enemies in your journey in following Jesus? You can’t see these foes but their soul-endangering attacks are real! 

But God has given us His strength and mighty power for this battle! And we wield spiritual weapons of righteousness: “…in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left…” (2 Corinthians 6:7). Our arms don’t look like human, conventional weapons of war but are far more powerful: “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4). God’s armor fortifies us with His strategic armaments against evil; truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and His Word. When utilized, no forces of evil can stand against these superior offensive and defensive weapons! 

Our ongoing battle with the forces of evil and our certain victory is not a contradiction. These forces of evil (“rulers and authorities”) are our on-going adversary. Christ-followers are called to a war-time mentality in a desperate fight for our faith. But Paul is reminding us that Satan and his minions are a defeated foe. At Calvary they received their death-blow, their eventual destruction was sealed, and their eternal judgment was pronounced. In other words, these enemies’ power has been checked and their influence diminished. John speaks to this when he states, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). The outcome of this war has already been settled in our favor. Though commanded to be alert and vigilant in this battle, we should never live in fear of this defeated foe. God has given us the victory now and forevermore for He has disarmed them, putting them to open shame. How did God do this? Through the cross of Christ (see v. 14, the previous verse)!

We have a Commander who stands at the vanguard of this hellish fray. Although we still exert Spirit-motivated effort in this battle, the war has already been won. Through His blood Jesus has already provided the victory and will, in the end, visibly demonstrate His supremacy for all of His creatures and creation to see. And they will fall down before Him and give Him the honor He so rightly deserves. His enemies will be vanquished and He will be exalted. It is no wonder that John cried out, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20)! We who are in His battalion boldly concur and sing: 

Oh victory in Jesus, my Savior forever
He sought me and He bought me with His redeeming blood

He loved me ‘ere I knew Him and all my love is due Him
He plunged me to victory beneath the cleansing flood

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