Colossians 2:16-23

We have just concluded a magisterial summary of salvation as the work of Christ on the cross; how at the cross he both satisfied divine justice for our sins and disarmed the spiritual powers that otherwise keep human beings in captivity. But now, suddenly and with a “therefore” Paul begins to speak of eating and drinking, observing holidays and such. It can seem that we have moved from the sublime to the ridiculous. What is the connection between the one and the other?

Text Comment


Obviously the visitors to the church who had brought new teaching were arguing that the Colossian Christians were in some way lacking deeper wisdom and spiritual substance. There was something wrong with them that these teachers knew how to fix. Obviously that kind of criticism can often lead to a feeling of inferiority on the part of those being criticized. The list involves two separate classes of things: those things that an authentic spirituality cannot allow and those things it cannot do without. [Lucas, 111-112] For example, apparently strict observance of the calendar was necessary perhaps because it amounted to obedience to the spiritual powers who were thought to control the movement of the moon and stars which in turn controlled a great deal in human life. (By the way, before you dispense with this as hopelessly unsophisticated and irrelevant to you today, remember our names for the days of the week: Sunday is a day sacred to the Sun, Monday to the moon, Tuesday to Mars (by another name), Saturday to Saturn, etc. Think of the horoscope that can be found in every major daily newspaper in the United States. And think of evangelical Christians who purport to know and to teach others what effects in life are the work of demons, how to drive demons out, how to escape their influence, what words to use, and so on.

The rituals and regulations mentioned are unmistakably the regulations of the Mosaic Law but, almost certainly, those regulations as they were further elaborated by the rabbis (for example, you can’t find in the Law of Moses any regulation about what one could and could not drink).

In regard to Paul’s mention of the Sabbath we’ve more than once considered whether this statement in its context amounts to an abrogation of the fourth commandment, as has often been claimed. Because this is not our theme this evening, I’ll be brief. The notion that one of the Ten Commandments would fall out of the law is and should be preposterous to anyone familiar with the Bible. What is more, the origin of the Sabbath is found not at the giving of the Law but at creation, as we read in Genesis 2:3. That one of the creation ordinances — work and rest, marriage and family — should be nullified is likewise preposterous. (By the way, I’ve often noticed that those who deny the perpetual obligation of the Sabbath day and claim that in Christ, in the New Testament, all our days are Sabbath days, somehow still want Saturday and Sunday off!) But, more than this, there is an emphasis on the first day of the week in the New Testament, including a reference to it as ”the Lord’s Day,” which, as you may remember, is another OT name for the Sabbath day. What we know from the New Testament is that OT ritual stipulations come into the NT but in a changed form. The practice of circumcision became the practice of baptism — as Paul just said in the previous few verses –, the Passover and the Peace or Fellowship Offering become the Lord’s Supper, and the Saturday Lord’s Day became the Sunday Lord’s Day. The substance is what it always was — circumcision, Paul wrote in Romans 4, was the seal of the righteousness that is by faith and we would certainly say that of baptism — but the outward form was altered. So, it seems likely that we have a reference, all the more in this context, to an insistence on the observing of the Sabbath on Saturday, the way the Jews had always observed it. Others point out that there were other Sabbaths in the Jewish calendar beside the weekly ones. These too could be in view because we are talking about new moons and other holidays. But, just as it would be to take Paul’s remark wholly out of context to conclude that because he commands us not to let anyone pass judgment on us in respect to questions of food and drink that it is not a biblical requirement to use bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, in the same way, it offends the context to suppose that Paul is abolishing the Lord’s Day with his remarks here!

His point is that submitting to an external round of observances and regulations, as the false teachers were demanding, is contrary to the nature of salvation as Paul has just described it, hence the therefore with which the verse begins.


Again, don’t mistake rituals that were designed to cast attention to a salvation yet to be accomplished for that salvation itself. V. 17 amounts to a summary of the great point of Colossians. The false teachers may have claimed that they were merely “filling out” the understanding and experience of the Colossian believers, but, according to Paul, they were, in fact, teaching the faith in such a way that minimized if it did not virtually ignore the fact that the Son of God had entered the world and suffered and died to deliver us from our sins and had risen from the dead to bring us into new and eternal life. [Lucas, 115] The false teachers may have claimed that they had greater light, but they were in fact living in the shadows.


Again, note the relevance of this warning to us today. How many sects have there been through the ages, how many parties are there in the church today who disqualify other Christians, not because they fail to do proper honor to Jesus Christ but because they don’t agree with them in respect to one thing or another?

In that culture there was widespread belief in a hierarchy of spiritual beings and there were all manner of ways to worship lesser spiritual beings who were thought in some way to influence human life. Whenever you have something that is commonplace in the culture you can guarantee that sooner or later someone is going to try to find a way to mix that cultural idea or practice with the Christian faith. It was inevitable that some would attempt to mix such familiar concepts and rituals with the Christian faith. Most heresy leaks into the church from the culture round about! False teaching of the Christian type is also very often supported by claims to have received extra-biblical information or inspiration, hence the appeal to visions.


Again, the point seems to be that the practices being insisted on by the false teachers all have the effect of distracting them from Christ himself and what he has done for them and is doing in them, the salvation Paul just described in the previous verses.


It appears from the way Paul speaks that some in the church had begun to follow the teaching of the visitors.

The false teachers obviously maintained that ascetic practices and a round of particular rituals were necessary to escape bondage to the elemental spirits (either spiritual beings or the basic principles or elements of man-made religion). But, says Paul, Christ had already liberated them from such slavery.


In other words, quite contrary to what the teachers were telling them, this new teaching could not lead them to the higher reaches of godliness because it cut them off from the root of all godliness; it placed them back in the world where people imagine that they must rise to God by their own efforts. As J.B. Phillips rendered the last sentence: “But in actual practice they do honor, not to God, but to Man’s own pride.” Such a religious viewpoint may have the appearance of zeal and be quite impressive in some ways, but what it lacks is the very thing that matters most: faith in the work of Jesus Christ and dependence upon him for what we need.

Again, the mistake is putting the emphasis in the wrong place. The practices of the Christian life must fit into an understanding of godly life and spiritual growth that arises naturally from the nature of the gospel itself and the achievement of our Redeemer.

What we have in these few verses is one of the Bible’s clearest explanations of the difference between religion and the Christian faith. Everyone is religious. Man as a sentient creature is more homo adorans (worshipping man) than he is homo sapiens (thinking man). Every human being is committed to some ultimate principle or principles and every human being is a worshipper, even if he is, at last, only a worshipper of himself. His devotion to one thing or another is what drives him. What shapes any person’s philosophy of life — whether or not he or she can articulate such a philosophy or has ever thought about it — are fundamental assumptions, not a one of which can be proved in a lab, seen through a telescope, or demonstrated as the necessary conclusion of a mathematical calculation. Those fundamental assumptions, taken together, are a man’s religion. They often include some view or another of a god or gods — what most people think of as religion — but not always. Virtually everyone would include Buddhism in a list a world religions but it is not at all clear that Buddhism includes belief in God, at least God as virtually everyone understands the term, God as a personal being.

Modern naturalism, a secular form of pantheism, maintains that nature is all that there is and that all of life has been created by, is now governed by, and is fated to remain forever subject to the laws of an impersonal nature. There is no god in naturalism, if by god we mean a personal, intelligent, powerful being who created the universe and mankind and sustains some relation to us as our creator. But surely naturalism is fundamentally religious as well, in the sense that it is the presupposition, the fundamental and controlling assumption of a person’s life, a belief about ultimate reality with profound metaphysical and moral implications. That is, it determines what one understands about what is (including the nature and meaning of human life and human relationships) and about what ought to be, how one thinks people ought to live their lives. I read recently a book that is one among the number of rejoinders to books like the late Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. But in this book the atheism of Hitchens and Dawkins is described in the title of the book as The Last Superstition. Atheism, the author argues, should not be dignified by the term religion; it is a lower form, a more primitive form of the thing. Communism had all the trappings of religion, including eschatology (a doctrine of the future), it was certainly an account of ultimate reality, but it had no place for a personal god, and so on. When the Bible refers to people “whose god is their belly,” or when it describes greed as “idolatry,” it teaches us that the idea of God is very elastic and that all sorts of viewpoints can qualify as religious if they amount to a person’s conception of ultimate reality or moral obligation.

Everyone has some concept of ultimate reality — whether articulated or simply absorbed from the surrounding culture — and that is his or her religion. To the extent that he or she acts in conformity to that understanding of ultimate reality, to that extent a person is religious and every human being, by that definition, is religious to some extent and almost all of them to some significant extent.

But it is precisely this religiosity that bedevils every religion. The hypocrisy, the self-absorption, the superficiality of human beings are their most consistent traits. So there are multitudes of Muslims who confess loyalty to that religion but hardly follow its precepts at all. And in the same way there are multitudes of Christians — have been and are today — who claim adherence to the Christian faith, but who practice it either rarely or not at all, or whose view of the Christian faith is of their own devising.

It was this fact that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to speak — to the confusion of many of his later readers — of the need for a “religionless” Christianity. He meant that the true faith of Christ is not to be found in outward conformity to Sunday rituals or in living a polite middle class life — the sort of things identified with “religion” in the Germany of his day — but in a heart-felt embrace of Jesus Christ, living faith in his saving work on the cross, and in a gratitude to him and love for him that determines every aspect of one’s life. As he once put it,

“The religion of Christ is not a tidbit after one’s bread; on the contrary, it is the bread or it is nothing. People should at least understand this and concede this if they call themselves Christians.” [In Mataxas, Bonhoeffer, 69]

You may remember the name of Prof. Ole Hallesby. Hallesby was a conservative Lutheran of Norway who spent several years imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II and who once created a stir by preaching the reality of hell on Norwegian national radio. He also wrote many popular books, one of which was entitled Religious or Christian? [Lucas, 131] He was getting at the same point as Bonhoeffer, both men being Lutherans. For both of those men the problem of “religion” as opposed to the genuine Christian faith was exacerbated by the existence of state churches in their respective countries. Every citizen was virtually assumed to be a Christian, no matter his or her actual heart commitment or practice.

But the problem of distinguishing the Christian faith from some religious version of it is universal and is surely as much with us today as it ever was before. What constitutes a Christian today? It was the great question at the time of the Reformation. What is a Christian? Who is a Christian, really? And similarly today: who is the Christian? What identifies a man or woman as a faithful follower of Jesus in the American church today?

Well, it depends. In some churches it is a person’s acceptance of homosexual relationships as something to be supported and admired, his or her commitment to environmental activism, to free access to abortion, or his or her approval of a particular sort of international politics. But in other churches it can be a particular view of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, commitment to a particular sort of worship service, or loyalty to a particular system of theology. In some Amish circles faithful believers in Jesus are identified by the clothing they wear, in some Reformed circles they are identified by the parties they belong to. To be sure, very often those who say that real Christians should think this or do that will, if asked, admit that they are not saying that Christians who disagree with them are, for that reason unsaved — though they sometimes will say that — but it is perfectly clear that their commitments, their programs of thought and behavior are what in their view define the higher reaches of Christian thought and life. If you want to move higher in the things of God, you have to get with their program.

Well, that is what the visiting teachers in Colossae were saying. We can be certain about some things, much as we do not know.

  1. These men claimed to be true blue Christians, indeed, truer and bluer than the Christians in the church in Colossae.
  2. They had a place for Jesus in their theological system. They would have made no headway had they not. In some ways they talked the same talk that the Colossians had been taught by Epaphras.
  3. They also claimed to know the way to a higher, deeper, purer experience of God.
  4. That higher way they were recommending was highly religious, was connected to Old Testament and Jewish practices, and so could be made to seem very biblical.
  5. They were impressive men for the strength of their conviction and for their interest in sharing their insights with others.

Had any of those things not been true, Paul would have had little to worry about. It was precisely the fact that they were very “religious” and in a recognizably Christian way that posed the problem.

Think about verses 16 and 21 for a moment. Paul was certainly no enemy of self-discipline or self-denial. It was Paul, you remember, who spoke about beating his body and making it his slave lest, having preached to others, he himself might be disqualified for the prize. [1 Cor. 9:27] Nor was he a man who was indifferent to the practice of weekly worship. All of the congregations he founded met for worship on the Lord’s Day.

As a Jewish Christian he still observed the feasts of the Jewish calendar when he could. In fact, if you remember, he hurried to return to Jerusalem that last time in order to be there for Pentecost. What is more, in Romans 15, for example, as in 1 Corinthians 9 he showed himself ready to bend over backward to respect the convictions of other believers — in respect to some of the same things mentioned here, days and rituals and regulations of the Jewish law — even if he didn’t himself believe those scruples were justified. He taught his churches to respect the scruples of other believers and not to make an issue of them if at all possible.

I read a commentary on this passage this past week by a highly respected Reformed scholar of the 20th century, a scholarly, literate, intelligent man, a man who wrote many very valuable and important books, of which I own more than twenty. But he took these remarks at the end of Colossians 2 as an argument against the use of the liturgical calendar, the celebration of Advent, Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter and so on. But there is nothing here about that at all. If Paul thought the celebration of the liturgical calendar was sinful, he wouldn’t have made a special effort to get back to Jerusalem for Pentecost! Paul is not saying here that it is sinful and an act of disloyalty to Christ to celebrate Christmas! That’s not his point. That would be to take his words in a sense he very obviously did not intend.

So what was it that made him such an adamant opponent of these practices as they were being recommended or insisted upon by the visiting teachers in Colosssae? We wish we knew more about precisely what they taught. But I think we can safely conclude that is was the principle that lay beneath these practices, it was their compulsory nature, it was that they were being required of Gentiles and not just Jews, and it was because he saw them as a distraction from the Lord Christ himself and his saving work.

If you remember, Paul had been happy to have Timothy circumcised so as not to offend the Jewish Christian conscience because, after all, Timothy was half-Jewish. Circumcision was a precious part of Jewish self-identity and Jewish Christians were loath to let it go. It was troubling to them that the Gentile church was not practicing circumcision. Paul understood and appreciated that and did his best to make as easy as possible the transition for Jewish Christians to a largely Gentile church. One way was to have as many circumcised as he could, his assistant Timothy among them. That was an example of his large spirit. He didn’t believe it necessary for Timothy to be circumcised, but as partly Jewish it was better for him to be circumcised than to give unnecessary offense by his refusal. But in Galatians he would hear nothing of the Jewish Christian demand that Gentile believers be circumcised. No bending over backward in Galatians, because in the demand for Gentiles to be circumcised a principle was at work that struck at the vitals of the Gospel, literally struck at the nervous system of biblical Christianity. The teachers in Galatia were saying that you had to be circumcised to be saved, you had to become a practicing Jew to be saved, to belong to the people of God. Anyone who made that statement was guilty of a profound misunderstanding of the gospel. He was substituting human works for the work of Jesus Christ as the basis of our acceptance with God. This Paul would not tolerate.

Well, similarly here in Colossians. The problem was not in Jewish Christians observing certain ancient rites and regulations; at the time Colossians was written, Jewish Christians were regularly participating in worship in the temple in Jerusalem. Jewish Christians were observing the feasts and the celebrations of the Jewish liturgical calendar and all of that with the complete approval of the Apostles. The problem was not even in some wise, discerning Gentile believers joining in for the sake of their Jewish Christian brethren — sort of like Gentile churches that have Passover services on Maundy Thursday. The problem wasn’t with fasting used properly as a method of self-denial and the training of the body in godliness or as a means of intensifying prayer; the problem was that these things were being taught as essential to salvation and the Christian life in that way Jesus Christ and his cross alone can be essential. There was a fundamental confusion in this teaching about how sinners are saved and how they advance in godliness. In the authentic Christian faith the answer to both questions is fundamentally, profoundly, and exclusively through Jesus Christ and his work. Everything else we do as Christians — whether Sunday worship or private acts of devotion and service are useful only insofar as they serve the interests of our faith in Christ, our active dependence upon him, and our obedience to his commandments.

But in Colossae and multitudes of times since, the heart found its ways to marginalize the Lord Jesus in the soul and to make other things, sometimes other beings, certainly other activities the true foundation of our religious life and our religious hope. Very often the first steps taken down such a road are taken with the very best of intentions, and no one has any intention whatsoever of minimizing or marginalizing Christ or his cross, but sooner rather than later the steps themselves, the program of spiritual advancement, the spiritual activities or commitments themselves become the major focus and Christ recedes into the background. Perhaps not explicitly, but in fact that is what happens. People are disqualified not because of their view of Christ or their trust in his saving work, but for something else. Here there may have been more actual error but still today it is the church’s perennial difficulty to keep the first thing the first thing, to keep Christ at the center, not only of our theology of salvation but of our concept of the Christian life and of progress or growth in godliness. No truer words were ever spoken than when our Savior said to us, “Without me you can do nothing!”

If you ask why this problem is so constant and why Christians have found so many ways to lose their grip on the Lord Christ as the focus of their faith and life, there are any number of answers.

  1. There is the problem of human pride which both resists the idea that we are helpless and dependent upon another, on the one hand, and wants to find a place for itself in Christian faith and life. The principle of self is never far removed from any error of theology or life.
  2. That same pride tends to look for ways to judge oneself better than others and many of these religious programs are very obviously motivated by a sense of spiritual elitism rather than genuine Christian humility and longing for holiness of heart and life.
  3. There is also the genius of the Devil who disguises himself as an angel of light and who can promote a false form of zeal and make it terribly impressive. Many of these movements are zealously advanced. People come to think and speak about them in extravagant terms. You’ve heard this, I know you have.  I have discovered this new principle or have found this new approach to be life changing. This is what you need; this is what every Christian needs. This is the solution to our problems. That’s the way we advertise things in American culture in our day. Everything is revolutionary – from the new car to the new Christian book. The lack of this is why the church is weak; if only Christians would get on this bandwagon the church would advance with great power and speed. How many times have we heard something like that just in our own lifetime!
  4. That sort of zeal is appealing to us precisely because the Christian faith and life is difficult. We are ready to hear that there is a way to make it easier and faster, that victory over our sins and over our weaknesses is at hand. And, at the last, none of these programs of spiritual advancement, of spiritual conquest, of the discovery of deeper insight, I say, none of them proves to be more difficult or nearly as difficult as the real thing. Surely it should be easy for us to see how attractive will be the claim that we can become really spiritual people, super Christians by thinking in this way or following this program of religious activity.
  5. Then there is the eagerness on the part of all of us to conform, to be accepted, to be liked. Virtually all of these programs work well in the particular segment of the church in which they become popular, because in those parts of the church such a program fits nicely into a larger view of things. In an indulgent culture, such as ours, a stern asceticism is unlikely to prove as popular a way of spiritual advancement as it did in the first century unless perhaps it consists primarily of the active hatred of McDonald’s or a religious commitment to an anti-obesity campaign. But in a culture of toleration, of pluralism, sexual equality, and of therapeutic approaches to the widespread spiritual dysfunctions of modern life a religious program or teaching that emphasizes the acceptance of a person as he is, concentrates on faith at the expense of obedience, trades in a theological minimalism, or an evangelicalism that accommodates itself to modern culture in certain key ways is likely to prove popular. In other more conservative circles, religious programs that emphasize the repudiation of the culture, are suspicious of even Christian institutions, and emphasize the family über alles are likely to prove popular.

In any case the way in which the Christian faith and life is adjusted — as it was being adjusted in Colossae — is invariably a corruption of our holy faith and invariably a diminishment of the central affirmations of that faith: that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, that he suffered and died in the place of sinners on the cross and by so doing both satisfied divine justice on their behalf and delivered them from the enslaving power of sin, rose from the dead to raise them to new and eternal life, and is present with his people by the Spirit to enable them to walk in love, righteousness, and obedience.

So when next someone tells you with great enthusiasm that you need to read this book — that it will revolutionize your understanding of the Christian faith — or that you need to come to this seminar to learn new things about communion with God or join with this group to discover how to make real progress in your Christian life, your antennae should go up. It is certainly possible that such people will have useful things to tell you, but if they are truly useful they will invariably be fresh reminders of how Christians live in the past — on the strength of what Christ did for them on the cross and in the resurrection — in the present — depending upon Christ present with them by the Spirit — and in the future — living their lives looking forward to what Christ will give them in due time. Anything that in any way detracts from the centrality of those facts, anything that amounts to teaching anything else than a Christo-centric faith and life, is just the umpteenth bad idea that has made its way into the Christian church.

I have this citation from William Williams, the Great Awakening Welsh preacher and hymn writer, in my Bible at Colossians 1:28 where Paul speaks of proclaiming the message of Christ in us, the means by which Paul hopes to present everyone perfect in Christ.

“I have come to see that the true religion consists in three parts. First, true light respecting the plan of salvation; God’s eternal covenant with his Son to pay the debt of believing sinners, all the truths of the new covenant by which he becomes all in all in…creation, in all-embracing providence, and in redemption…. The other….being in intimate communion with God in all our dealings… Lastly…life and conduct such as would reveal to the ungodly that there is a great difference between us and them. [Evans, Daniel Rowland, 362]

Is that not a grand summary of what the Bible is about and of salvation as it is taught in the Word of God? Stick close to those three aspects of true faith and life and you will if you stick very close to Jesus Christ and think of your daily life in terms of his work: past, present, and future.