Introduction. There are times when we feel we are not spiritual enough. God seems distant. Our faith feels cold. We go to church, but we don’t read the Bible or pray from one week to the next. What’s to be done?
Some of us set ourselves a rigorous program – perhaps rising at 5.00AM, fasting on Fridays and following a strict code of rules. Others feel we need new spiritual experiences. And still others insist we need spiritual exercises. But in Colossians 2:16-23 Paul the Apostle makes some salutary observations about legalism, mysticism, and ascetism. ‘You haven’t understood who Jesus Christ really is and what he has done for you’, he is saying.
In Colossians 2:16-17 he writes: Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
Legalism. ‘A rigorous calendar of saints days and food ritual will get you nowhere’, he states. ‘Sure, the Old Testament had a whole bundle of laws concerning sacrifices and sabbaths, fasting and washing, but that’s all over now. Going back to that type of religious legalism is like people in the 21st century going back to the horse and buggy days of the 19th century. The Old Testament rules and regulations were shadows of the reality that was to come.’
Yes, as we all know, there is wisdom in washing before meals – especially at this time when the coronavirus (COVID-19) is rampant. There is also wisdom in having a regular break from work. But, Paul is saying, ‘don’t think that by observing this kind of legalistic ritual that you are going to be more spiritual or more godly. Spiritual legalism received its death knell when Jesus nailed it to his cross’ (Colossians 2:14).
In 2:18-19 he continues: Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
Mysticism. Oriental religions have always thought that people can penetrate the cloud that veils our view of God by participating in occult practices. But Paul says otherwise. ‘Reciting mantras, going to yoga or looking for mystical experiences, won’t work. You lose contact with the real source of life.’ Mysticism – the occult, drug induced experiences will not help us find God.
Consider what Paul says in verses 20 – 23: If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigour of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh.
Asceticism. This third group tries to be more spiritual through a program of self-discipline and self-denial. They fast and will eat only certain foods. Diet and physical discipline can become an obsession.
But says Paul, severe self-discipline isn’t going to help you live morally or spiritually better lives. For starters, it’s all man-made. We may give the impression of being pious or wise, but it’s nothing more that a self-imposed religious asceticism.
So, if legalism, mysticism and asceticism won’t help us live better moral or spiritual lives, what will? Paul is telling us that we need to go back to the one who truly liberates – Jesus Christ. He is the solution to our longing for deeper spiritual experience.
Paul was convinced the Colossian people needed to focus their thinking on Jesus. They needed to ask again: Who is he? What has he done? Back in Colossians 2:9, Paul writes: For in Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him,…
Most people find this hard to believe. Yet the evidence of Jesus’ life was that he is both man and truly God. Think of the miracles he performed— his ability to control nature, his ability to heal the sick, his ability to feed thousands, his ability to raise even the dead. He didn’t do these things because he was a man of great faith. He did them because he was both one hundred percent God and one hundred percent man.
If the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus, then he is all we need. ‘To know Jesus,’ says Paul, ‘is to have God: one hundred percent of God; the fullness of God through his Spirit in your life.’ When we grasp this, then all the pseudo-ideas of a spiritual life that might seem attractive, will lose their appeal. When people turn away from a professed Christian faith, their decision often begins with their denial of the incarnation and their denial of the deity of Christ.
You, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:14).
Prayer. Almighty God, you wonderfully created men and women in your own image and have now more wonderfully rescued and restored them. Grant us, we pray, that as your Son our Lord Jesus Christ was made in our likeness, so may we share his divine nature; we ask this through Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (AAPB: 1978, Second Sunday after Christmas – adapted)
Suggested reading – Colossians 2:8-23