Colossians 2:16-23 (Week 6)
“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. 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. “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 an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body indeed, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. 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 an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body indeed, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.“
This is following right on the heels of his main focus of the entire letter, that we are to walk in Christ. We are to live lives characterized by the fact that we died and have been raised with Jesus. What a huge Gospel truth! Paul will continue to tell us how we need to live in light of this. Let’s remember to keep this in context.
The first thing that we should notice is that there is another “therefore.” This is the second of five “therefores” in the letter. And, as always, we need to ask, “what is it there for”? This is connecting what Paul just said to what he is about to say. We have been raised with Christ, and the record of our debts, of our sins, has been nailed to the cross by Jesus. We are no longer subject to it. We have been born again and set free. So, in light of that, let’s live like it.
This section is ordered around three main verbs. The first two are imperatives: “Do not let anyone judge you” and “do not let anyone condemn you.” The third main verb is a part of the question he asks in 2:20, “why are you submitting to the rules and regulations of the world?” Let’s jump right into it.
WHAT IS THE TEXT SAYING?
DO NOT LET ANYONE JUDGE YOU
What exactly is happening here? This is one of those situations where it looks like we are hearing one side of a phone conversation, and then we try to guess what is happening on the other side. Why is Paul telling them not to let people judge them?
First, let’s look at what he is telling them not to be judged about. He mentions: what you are eating, what you are drinking, and then specific religious issues (feasts, new moons, and sabbaths). What it looks like here is that false teachers are trying to get them back to a type of Judaism. Remember that in Old Testament Judaism, there were a bunch of food laws, prescribed feasts, and holy days, not to mention a strict observance of the Sabbath. Honoring the Sabbath day and keeping it holy is one of the Ten Commandments.
But here is the issue, are all those food requirements and feasts wrong? No, of course not. But they do not bring you into right standing with God. They are not ends in themselves. They were always, always intended to point to Jesus. Look at the picture that Paul paints here. All of those OT specific teachings were just a shadow. Are shadows real? Sure, but they aren’t the main thing. The substance (the body that is casting the shadow) is, and has always been Jesus. They had their proper context in the BC period, but now that Christ is here, there is no need to elevate the signs pointing to Him.
DO NOT LET ANYONE CONDEMN YOU
Here Paul is shifting gears and attacking another heresy that is working its way into the Colossian Church. He repeats the same basic command, slightly nuanced, saying not to let anyone condemn you (or rob you of your reward) regarding a whole new list of issues. These have to do with what looks to be a kind of self-sacrifice (maybe extreme fasting or another type of self-imposed discomfort) combined with a potentially mystic experience (either having visions or following the visions of others). Apparently, there are false teachers who want the Colossians to incorporate these practices into their church, all in the name of Christianity. This stuff is crazy and has no basis in the Bible. That is why Paul says that they are puffed up with pride without reason and are no longer connected to “the Head,” which is Jesus.
It is very clear that Paul is saying that these false teachers are in no way, Christian. If they were Christians, they would still be connected to Christ. As it is, they have separated themselves from Jesus and are like a decapitated body. In the Christian worldview, hope is found only in Jesus. It is Jesus that connects us all together and gives true life.
Paul uses a similar construction here as he used earlier. In verse 16, he said that the substance (literally body) is Christ. In verse 19, still talking about Jesus, he says that in Him, the “whole body” with is joints and ligaments is held together. I love the application of the “body” analogy that he draws out here. It is in Christ that we are given nourishment and knit together in one body. These false teachers have separated themselves from the body of Christ.
IF YOU DIED WITH CHRIST, WHY AREN’T YOU LIVING LIKE IT?
Now we move on to the basis for his questioning. When you elevate these earthly standards, you are minimizing the real and eternal aspects of our sanctification. The point of this line of reasoning is to remind us of the reality that our sin has been paid for by the blood of Jesus Christ. We have been purchased by Jesus, and we are no longer condemned, but set free.
All of these legalistic standards that we are tempted to submit to are all earthly and superficial. Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch… these all have to do with earthly things. Didn’t Jesus tell us that none of these things can make us unclean? He even went into detail saying that what goes in our mouth, goes to our stomach and then out…in other places…How can that make you unclean spiritually?
This is exactly what Paul is echoing. These are merely earthly regulations, and when you step back and think about it, all of these physical things (like food and drink) are temporary and have been created to “perish as they are used up.”
But this is not true of the Christian. If you are a Christian, then you have died to the principles of this world. You are no longer enslaved by them and no longer need to submit to their regulations.
So now we get to Paul’s question: If you have died with Christ to the things of the world, then why are you submitting to its rules and regulations as if you were merely worldly? Answer: because there are teachers who sound wise telling them to do just that. But Paul anticipates that and undercuts their authority by saying that these might have an appearance of wisdom (literally, “a word of wisdom”). Still, they have absolutely zero value in affecting our true selves on the inside.
He pulls no punches when condemning this teaching. He says it resembles something more like a “self-made religion” than Christianity. Sure, you are punishing your body and imposing a false humility on yourself, and you look more “religious,” but all that is doing is affecting your actions.
Paul makes a powerful comparison here between “body” and “flesh.” These two words can be used interchangeably to refer to the body, but in this context, Paul is setting them up in opposition to each other. He uses “body” to talk about the physical body and the physical aspect of the world and “flesh” to talk about our sinful flesh. See what he is doing here? This is just like Jesus in Matthew 15. They are trying to use merely physical means to achieve a spiritual end. They are being taught that if they impose all of these physical restrictions on themselves, then it will change their internal desires, but that is only partially true. Sure, if you set up good habits to avoid sin, it can help the way you think and act. The mistake that the false teachers are making here is that they are making it totally physical by putting their faith in the process and not on Jesus. In reality, you can impose all kinds of physical, earthly standards on yourself, and it will not change your innate sinful desires.
So what does change those desires? He’s hinted at that in his question, but he’ll explain it more in detail in the next section.
Spoiler alert: it has to do with applying the finished work of Jesus into every aspect of our lives. We have been changed on the inside, now we need to work that out.
What Does This Mean for Me?
- Are there things in your Christian walk that you either say, “Oh, I don’t think Christians should do that?” or “If you are a Christian, then you should do this?” If so, what is your biblical basis for it? If those are hard and fast commands from the Bible, then you should be able to back it up from Scripture. If not, then you should evaluate why you believe them.
- Are you imposing specific regulations on yourself or others as if those are a means to righteousness? If so, that is legalism, and you need to repent and turn from that.
- Do you really believe that you have died with Christ to these things? If so, then you need to daily remember those truths about yourself as a way of dealing with the various temptations to sin.
- If you feel like you are constantly giving into and gratifying the desires of your sinful flesh, you must repent, seek accountability, and find your worth, value, and identify in Jesus Christ alone.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Get resources, podcast episodes, and SWO updates sent directly to your inbox.