Dear Least Important Church…
Before we jump into this week’s sermon I should probably give a quick review of the five that preceded it. Not the chronological quintet, but the previous pentad in the series it is a member of.
Today’s “Don’t Be a Sucker” is talk number six in “Dear Least Important Church…,” an expository look at Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The first five took us about half way through that book…and I highly recommend, if you haven’t already, that you listen to them (or at least review their sermon notes). I even more highly recommend you read Colossians entirely as we continue through it this year. Pretend you received it along with the original church. They didn’t, at least originally, go through it verse by verse…they likely excitedly read and heard it all at once!
Now, so as not to overly extend this intro (or the sermon itself) I’m only going to list the titles of the sermons plus their very final lines to give you a flavor. That will bring you up to where we jump back in today.
And, I should note, there has been about a 2 year interruption in my presenting the series…caused by a new job 3,000 miles away from the church I started preaching it in.
Ready to jump in? The five titles were:
- “Dear Least Important Church…”
- “Reacting to the News”
- “The Invisible Materializing”
- “Mystery Theater”
- “The Debt Collector Is Calling”
And, respectively, their final lines were:
- “Dear least important church, let’s talk about Jesus…”
- “Dear least important church, we pray continuously you keep your eyes upon Jesus…”
- “Dear least important church, Jesus is everything…and should be everything to you…”
- “Dear least important church, let me explain a mystery to you…”
- “Dear least important church, let’s talk about how we are going to take care of this debt of yours…”
In addition to those five, I did a “goodbye” talk for the Antrim Church of Christ that was not part of the series, but was connected. It was “Don’t Let an Earthquake Stop You” and ended with: “Dear least important church, I may be departing, but I leave you in far better hands…His hands…”
[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the "extras" that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]
I realize at this point my introduction doesn’t truly “catch you up,” but I hope the tidbits I’ve shared will encourage you to take the time to visit http://traditor.es/co to more thoroughly review the series.
Which brings us to today’s text, Colossians 2:16-23. Let’s open up our Bibles and read it together:
16 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. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 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, 19 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.
20 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— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 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.
I suspect you don’t need a preacher to explain the primary gist of those 8 verses…but just in case, I’ll keep talking for a bit. 🙂
First of all, what is the first word of that passage?
And…to use on a common play on that word…
What is “therefore” there for? 🙂
That’s right…to point directly to what preceded it.
Short of repeating the previous sermon in this series, “The Debt Collector is Calling”…the preceding section in Colossians had a couple of key verses. First, after telling the church at Colossae to be “rooted and built up” in Christ, Paul writes:
8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ (Colossians 2:8).
Then, right near the end of the pericope, it said:
3 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14).
And as we think about those words, we cannot ignore even further back in Colossians…Colossians 1:21-23 to be specific:
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister (emphasis mine).
Are you hearing a common theme? I’ll sum it up in two simple statements.
Jesus has already got you covered.
Don’t be a sucker and listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.
The “therefore” is “there for” us to understand that, since Jesus has got us covered, the ceremonies and behaviors that other religions, and, for that matter, many Christian denominations, try to sell us are of absolutely no value.
Zero. Zip. Nada…
Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I fully believe that, within the constraints defined by God through the Word, people can worship our Lord whichever way they want. If you like something more liturgical, more power to you.! If you prefer something entirely informal, so be it! If you want to have a bunch of high days to help you focus on what God has done, go for it! If you want to treat every day equally important before the Lord, then…well…
Instead of me saying it less eloquently than Scripture itself…let’s remember the same Paul who wrote the letter we are studying in this series also wrote these:
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him (Romans 14:2-3).
And shortly after…
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5).
If you combine those words with today’s passage in Colossians, I would suggest the issue isn’t that you can’t choose to worship God a certain way (both in and out of church), but where you cross the line is in believing it somehow accomplishes something that affects or enhances your salvation…and/or when you go and tell others they also have to do those extra things you like.
You can worship God any way you want as long as it is (a) within biblical confines; (b) you don’t think it enhances or affects your salvation and (c) you don’t tell others the must do those extra things you like.
I would also suggest that, from a worship perspective, God has kept His requirements pretty simple:
- Keep Him first.
- Pray to Him.
- Praise Him.
- Meet regularly with fellow believers.
- Be baptized.
- Partake of the Lord’s supper.
For now I’m not going to try to “prove” those…but if you disagree with any of them or think I’ve left some out…please let me know.
But please also notice just how simple my list is…and, I should note, still none of those “earn” you salvation from the Most High.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Your works didn’t save you to start with and they don’t earn you extra bennies with God afterward. [Repeat]
Returning to the Text
Let’s keep all that in mind as we return to our text, and do a bit more of a “verse by verse.” Heading back to the top:
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. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17).
Clearly in view here are Jewish customs, which…Christianity being a fulfillment of Judaism…understandably had an effect on the early church. Sometime put “new moon” and “Sabbath” into the search feature of your Bible software, and you’ll get plenty of Old Testament hits, for instance:
It shall be the prince’s duty to furnish the burnt offerings, grain offerings, and drink offerings, at the feasts, the new moons, and the Sabbaths, all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel: he shall provide the sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings, and peace offerings, to make atonement on behalf of the house of Israel (Ezekiel 45:17).
As my proposed Bible search will illuminate for your, when Paul writes of “a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath”…his Jewish listeners especially understood what he was referring to. As for the “food and drink part, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Colossians states:
…such a regulation seems to be based on Jewish distinctions between ritually pure and impure foods (see Rom 14:1—4, 1 Tim 4:3—5, Heb 9:10, 13:9; see also Mark 7:17—20, Acts 10:10—16), or else springs from widespread Greek ideas that by abstaining from food and drink (especially from meat and wine) a person was able more adequately to worship the gods.1
Again…what you choose to eat and drink does not earn you any status with God…although…in good conscience you should never eat anything that has been sacrificed or dedicated to an idol or false God (see 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Acts 15:29, and Acts 21:25). Doing that doesn’t earn you anything either, but it’ll help make sure that you are not actually or appearing to follow a false god.
Moving on to next two verses in today’s text:
8 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, 19 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).
Once more we have people promoting special behavior…although, being 2,000 years removed from when they were written…it isn’t entirely clear what some of this is saying. For instance, what is Paul referring to with “worship of angels”? Here is an interesting discussion by Robert Walls in his book Colossians and Philemon:
The other item, the worship of angels, has prompted much scholarly discussion (Francis 1975). Wright outlines three possible interpretations (1987:121—22). First, Paul may have in mind actual liturgies of angel worship, borrowed from either pagan or Jewish religious practices. Apparently these liturgies were followed by some Colossian believers for their spiritual formation. If so, Paul would have surely considered such worship idolatrous. Few scholars, however, subscribe to this interpretation; there is simply too little evidence from the ancient world that angels were worshiped either by pagans or Jewish believers. The second possibility is a variation of the first: Paul uses the phrase ironically. Some believers spend so much of their time speculating about angels (as though they worshiped them!) that they have little time left to serve Christ in more practical ways. I doubt that Paul denied that angels exist; rather, in this view, his concern is with a highly speculative and mystical doctrine of angels (angelology), one of the “human traditions” that make up the Colossian “philosophy” of religion (see 2:8). Third and most likely is that Paul has in mind a teaching that focuses on the angelic worship of God. J. B. Lightfoot, for example, contended that humility and worship of angels belong together, so that the sort of humility expected of the spiritually mature believer presumed that God was too holy to be worshiped directly. Only the angels that populated God’s throne room had direct access to God; thus the community’s worship of God must be mediated through them (1876:222).2
Which one did Paul mean? I don’t know…and I would suggest…it isn’t near as important as the fact that it is part of yet another un or extra-biblical thing that a religious leader “insists” people follow to not be disqualified.
And speaking of “disqualify,” the word right near the beginning of these two verses in “let no one disqualify you,” Hall wrote:
The verb disqualify (katabrabeu) literally refers to the negative decision of an umpire (Harris 1991:120). Apparently, the person Paul has in mind monitors the congregation’s readiness for final justification (the prize) and decides against it when the believers’ conduct does not accord with the rules of Jewish celebration (2:16) and asceticism (2:21).3
Although you should listen to church elders and other wise people in your congregation, the reality is that you should not allow anyone to act as your umpire. Your Lord has reserved that job for Himself:
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand (Romans 14:4).
Keep Your Eyes Upon Jesus
We’ve spent quite a bit of time on the first verse of this pair, but the second one might be the most important of all eight that are the basis for today’s sermon. The problem with all this extra crap…
And I’m sorry for using scatological language…but the extra stuff that religious umpires add to the gospel truly is crap…and it is poisonous. Why?
Because it is, per verse nineteen, “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.”
In the ESV text “Head” is capitalized with good reason because we know from Colossians 1:18 who the Head is…it’s Jesus.
When people add to the gospel, they help the suckers who follow them stop holding fast to the Head…and that Head is how the entire body, down to every single believer within it, is nourished.
When people add to the gospel, they help the suckers who follow them to stop holding fast to Christ, and Christ is how the entire body, down to you and me, is nourished.
Lose hold of the head and you will spiritually wither…and if you do it long or thoroughly enough…you will spiritually die. Now wonder Paul was a little less tactful in his words to the Galatians:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).
And less you think that Paul was taking about a different perversion of the gospel in Galatia:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (Galatians 4:8-11)
These umpires who help you lose hold of Christ are accursed. Don’t be a sucker and buy what they are selling.
Appearances Versus Reality
Okay…let’s wrap today’s talk up with the last four verses in today’s text:
20 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— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 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).
Did you notice an interesting connection between the second reference we just read in Galatians and these words in Colossians? In the former Paul asked, “How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” and here he wonders, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why…?” And…just to tie it even closer, the English Standard Version translator note on “elementary principles” in Galatians says, “Or elemental spirits.”
Brothers and sisters, with Christ you died to all this elementary crap…so, if you do, why do you want to return? I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Peter’s words in 2 Peter 2:22 to apply to me:
What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”
God doesn’t command you to do a whole bunch of funky things to follow Him; instead He commands you to stop doing them and to stop teaching others to do them. [Repeat]
And…if you are wondering what “elemental spirits” are, The MacArthur Study Bible points back to the same term in Colossians 2:8, where his commentary says:
Far from being advanced, profound knowledge, the false teachers’ beliefs were simplistic and immature like all the rest of the speculations, ideologies, philosophies, and psychologies the fallen satanic and human system invents.4
And then, back in the commentary for verse twenty says they are the same thing as “human precepts and teachings” in verse twenty-two.
I still think “crap” sums it up more succinctly. 🙂
Of course, as much as a “load of crap” all these “human precepts and teachings” are…Paul implicitly notes why they are so effective….because, as verse 23 states, “these indeed have an appearance of wisdom.”
The look wise…they look like they can improve you…”but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh”…
Or anything else, for that matter.
They look wise but they are crap.
To wrap up…you may be familiar with the acronym, KISS…”keep it simple stupid.”
Salvation is simple:
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household (Acts 16:30-31).
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38).
because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).
No “elemental spirits” to follow.
No crap to do.
And when it comes to the Christian life after salvation, it’s just as simple. Not always easy, but still simple. All God asks:
- Keep Him first.
- Pray to Him.
- Praise Him.
- Meet regularly with fellow believers.
- Be baptized.
- Partake of the Lord’s supper.
“Dear least important church…don’t be suckers…keep it simple and keep hold of Jesus…”
1Bratcher, R. G., & Nida, E. A. (1993). A handbook on Paul’s letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (p. 65). New York: United Bible Societies.
2Wall, R. W. (1993). Colossians & Philemon (Col 2:18). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
4MacArthur, J., Jr. (Ed.). (1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed., p. 1835). Nashville, TN: Word Pub.