Friday, 25 February 2011
How to Live the Christian Life (Col. 2:16-23)
This sermon was preached on 24/2/2011
How can a believer live the Christian life? This question has been asked since the Christian church began and it was asked in Colosse. Indeed it is this question that lies behind our passage. In these verses Paul responds to what false teachers in Colosse were suggesting on this important issue. (There may have only been one false teacher because Paul uses a singular pronoun [anyone] to describe the source of the wrong teaching. If this is the case, then Paul gives a good example of one way of preventing the spread of wrong ideas – don’t mention the name(s) of the propagators.)
It is likely that the wrong teaching was a combination of Jewish and Gentile ideas and it is probably impossible for us today to be certain of all its features. Paul gives his response in three points and we have to deduce from each of his points the aspects of the false teaching that he has in mind. So while remembering that the wrong teaching was probably one message, Paul wants his readers to consider it in more detail. It is good for Christians to do so because parts of a false message may have applications in other areas as well as in one particular wrong teaching, and what is learned can then be applied when other errors appear.
In his first response, Paul deals with the aspect that argued Christians should live like Jews and keep the various rituals mentioned in the Old Testament (vv. 16-17). There is the possibility that his target is not entirely Jewish because, while there were several prohibitions on different foods, there were not many prohibitions on drinks in the Old Testament. Having said that, there was the prohibition on wine in the Nazarite vow, and such a denial would fit in with the ascetic practices recommended by the false teachers. The phrase ‘a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath’ could be a quick way of referring to annual, monthly and weekly occasions. There were seven annual feasts (Lev. 23), a monthly feast at each new moon (Num. 28:11-15), and the weekly Sabbath. So I suspect that Paul is focussing first on Old Testament rituals. His rejection of them as valid for Christian living is based on the fact that they are only shadows whereas what Christians need is the substance, Jesus himself.
Why does Paul include the Sabbath in this list? I suspect the inclusion is not based on its total abrogation but is listed because the false teachers failed to recognise that the particular day had changed from the seventh to the first day of the week. Whether they recognised the Lord’s Day is not stated. The point is that they were teaching that Christians had to use every Saturday as a Sabbath, which inevitably dimmed the significance of the Lord’s Day in the perception of those who listened to them. We might say that it would be useful to have another day in the week set apart to God in addition to the Lord’s Day. Not if it affects how we regard the Lord’s Day and not if we try and make keeping an extra day the equivalent of a divine command for his people.
Paul does not deny that those Old Testament practices used to have spiritual value because he says they were ‘a shadow of the things to come’ (‘things to come’ refer to various blessings that Christians now have in Christ). These practices were pointers to the reality that was going to come; they were like photographs we might have to help us identify a person we are going to meet; so these practices gave spiritual insight concerning the person and work of the coming Messiah. Yet just as once we have met the person, we don’t need the photographs, so having found Jesus the Colossians did not need the shadows. Old Testament rituals were not part of the New Testament reality any more than a shadow is part of an object. Since the Christians in Colosse have the substance, it is wrong for them to live as if they did not have it.
How are the Old Testament rituals shadows of Christ? This is a big subject. Take, for example, the seven Old Testament feasts. Each of them had a relevant meaning for the Israelites and a symbolic or typical meaning for Christians. We can briefly discuss three that occurred together at the beginning of the Jewish year – Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firstfruits (Lev. 23:4-14) – and see why going back to them would be of no value to Gentiles, but yet also reveal details about Jesus.
The Passover highlighted the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. How does a Gentile Christian react to it? (1) He should allow a Jewish brother to take part if he wishes to join in an occasion of ethnic significance (after all, Paul took part in feasts after he was converted). (2) He should recognise that it pictures an aspect of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb that God provided to deliver sinners from spiritual bondage – Paul says in 1 Corinthians that Christ is our Passover. (3) He should resist strongly any suggestion that the details of the actual ritual have any spiritual value for a Christian – animal sacrifices are of no value, and that he would be spiritually advanced by participation.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread lasted for a week after Passover. It was preceded by a diligent search of one’s home for any leaven and then involved eating unleavened bread for seven days as well as presenting a daily food offering. I suppose a Christian would not object to a Jewish Christian eating unleavened bread for a week. The Christian would also recognise that leaven depicted sin, so eating unleavened bread could illustrate the necessity of feeding on Christ, the sinless Saviour. But the Christian would resist the idea that eating unleavened bread had any spiritual value or made it any easier for him to feed on Christ or live a better Christian life.
The Feast of Firstfruits took place on the day after the Sabbath that followed the Passover. It involved waving a sample of the harvest grain before the Lord as an expression of thankfulness for the full harvest. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 takes this and applies it to Jesus as Christ the Firstfruits – he was raised as a sample of the future harvest that will give resurrection life to believers, and he was raised on the first day after the Sabbath that followed the Passover. But participating in or re-enacting the Feast of Firstfruits is of no help in living the Christian life.
These rituals were shadows of Christ, but they are not essential pathways to Christ for Christians. Understanding what the rituals pointed to is helpful, although the Colossians could find that information from Christian teaching in general (Jesus as the sacrifice for sin, Jesus as sinless, and Jesus as the sample of resurrection life, are aspects of the Christian message and one is not dependant on participating in the rituals for understanding what Jesus has done). If engaged in, they place a shadow beside the substance. It is like someone insisting on using a torch in a room already lit by electric light.
Of course, we have to be careful that we don’t merely replace Old Testament rituals with another set taken from someone or something else (such as Christian leaders or denominations). I suppose the equivalent that we face is the danger of tradition, of doing something in the present merely because it was connected to something valuable in the past. Paul is making it very clear that Jesus is the substance of Christian living.
The second aspect of the false teaching that Paul critiques is the notion that Christians should focus on supernatural experiences that were connected to asceticism (vv. 18-19). It may be that depriving themselves of food and drink brought the participants into a form of trance in which they saw visions that seemed to be angelic. Or their stress on angelic participation may have been based on notions of spiritual hierarchy in which celestial beings played a part in bringing individuals higher up a spiritual ladder and closer to God. The outcome was that they were proud of their spiritual attainments and delighted to speak about them in great detail to others. They also asserted that those who did not have such experiences were not proper Christians (those who claimed these encounters disqualified those who had not). In contrast, Paul’s assessment is that, whatever the basis of their practices, their experiences were not a consequence of union with Christ.
In order to explain his point, Paul uses an illustration he employs elsewhere, that of a head and body, with Jesus being the Head and his people the body. Those who pursue teachings that did not come from Jesus are like a man who does not use his reason when performing actions. We’re familiar with the advice to someone who has done something silly, ‘Use your head.’ What is a church like that listens to the teaching of Christ rather than the claims of a false teacher? It grows in a balanced way. What is a church like that listens to a false teacher and his grandiose claims rather than listening to Christ? It neither grows or remains balanced.
Paul assures the Colossians that the path of spiritual growth is not by imitating the supernatural claims of anyone. Instead, the path is listening to Jesus and receiving from Jesus. Imagine that you have a profound spiritual experience. How are you to assess it? Ask yourself, ‘Did my experience bring me closer to Jesus.’ Paul would say, taking the false teacher’s claims of angelic encounters, that a steady interaction with Jesus is more important than many esoteric experiences. The latter don’t help in living the Christian life whereas the former does.
Slavery to human rules
The third aspect that Paul deals with is the notion that Christians should live by a set of rules based on human wisdom. In Colosse the false teachers had compiled a list of items regarding which it was wrong even to touch or handle. Paul’s response is that because the false teachers were concerned with perishable things such as food they were giving a focus to things that did not matter a great deal and were of no benefit for living a holy life.
Paul instructs the Colossian Christians to recall what happened at their conversion. They died then to the opinions that had gripped their thinking before (he calls these ideas ‘the elemental spirits of the world’) and had replaced these sources, whether human or demonic, with Jesus. Yet now they were putting themselves under a similar source again by embracing the false teaching. They had to realise where it came from.
The biggest danger, says Paul, with the false teaching is that it produces an impressive appearance. Those who followed such instruction about what should not be touched produced an outward display that seemed impressive. Onlookers could admire a person who lived scrupulously according to a set of rules that governed a method of asceticism. But the issue is not the outward effects. Any religion can achieve such changes. Instead, says Paul, what matters is inner change. And these outward rules cannot bring about inner change. It might be good for me physically to stop eating sweets, but even if I never eat another one my abstinence will not make me even a little more holier. The issue is not what changes me, but who can change me? So the next time someone comes along with a plan for Christian living that does not stress union with Jesus, ignore it.
So the false teaching was a combination of biblical practices, supernatural experiences and human wisdom. It would have seemed very impressive, so it is not surprising that some in the Colossian church had gone along with it. Yet Paul did not approve of any of it and instead gave various arguments for the Christians to use when confronting it.
It is not hard to see that many contemporary wrong claims regarding how to live the Christian life fall into the categories of misapplied Bible passages, mystical encounters and a focus on external activities. There are many books that distort the meaning of scriptural passages, there are many books in which the subjects claim the most exalted of spiritual interactions with celestial beings, and there are many books that deal with issues of sanctification in a trivial and human-centred way. They promise much and deliver nothing of value as far as living the Christian life is concerned.
Since we face similar possible diversions, it means that the instruction Paul gave the Colossians is very relevant for us today. The obvious conclusion is that Paul taught that union with Jesus was the answer regarding how to live the Christian life. Practical union with him is brought about by the Holy Spirit using the means of grace (Bible reading, prayer, church attendance) and not by elaborate schemes and esoteric encounters.
Paul makes it very clear to the Colossians that they are responsible for making the right choices. He urges them not to allow false teachers to delude them regarding the centrality of Jesus, to divert them from developing a relationship with him, and to dominate them by man-made rules. And he also commands us not to allow it either.