Colossians 2:16-19 by Robert Dean

Are We Holding Fast to Christ? - Colossians 2:16-19

Colossians 2:16-19 NASB "Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a {mere} shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on {visions} he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God."

The basic theme in Colossians is that Jesus Christ is all sufficient, enough, all that we need. Another way we can put that is, adding anything to grace, the grace of God and the gospel, to Christ, to the Word, in terms of that whole idea of sufficiency for our spiritual life, for facing and handling the problems that we have in life, destroys it. It dilutes it immediately and negates that. The Scripture really does present God's viewpoint versus our viewpoint. It is one or the other. You can't mix it; it is not a little bit of one and a little bit of the other. It calls for a focus and a commitment and subordination to the authority of God that truly is beyond our natural capability, and this is the very issue that runs throughout all of human history and is a reflection of that ultimate spiritual warfare that began at some time in eternity past when Lucifer rebelled against God. His rebellion consisted of his desire to assert himself as independent of God, to assert his own authority. He wanted to be like God. And that is at the essence of all sin—self-definition, we want to define who we are and define our life and find meaning in life apart from what God said. So the battle in the soul of all humanity ultimately comes down to this issue of human viewpoint or divine viewpoint, Christ or us.

It is in this central section of the epistle to the Colossians that this is reinforced and is the focal point of this whole epistle. This section begins in 2:5 and extends down through 4:6. We see this emphasized in Colossians 2:6-8 as Paul sets up and introduces us to the basic broad themes that he will expand upon in the core body of this epistle. He says, "Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, {so} walk in Him." We receive Christ Jesus by faith alone in Christ alone. What that means is that we believe that Scripture teaches it is only by faith that we can receive the righteousness of God which is given to us. It is solely on the basis of faith; it is not faith plus anything. That becomes and issue that Paul has to address in the epistle to the Galatians. It is faith alone.

That is at salvation, that instant of justification. But is also the foundation for the Christian life. It is faith alone. Faith is not in contrast to knowledge—which is the approach that modern theology and modern philosophy has taken ever since the time of Immanuel Kant in the late eighteenth century. In his philosophy he shifted the focal point of human thought from an objective external to a subjective internal—we can't know anything in truth as it is, we can only know our perceptions of truth. We all know that there is an element of truth in that, there is an element of truth in every lie, there is an element of truth in every counterfeit. But the reality is that there is an objective truth. What is so logically inconsistent with many of these philosophical statements is that their basic presupposition is self-refuting. The only way that we know truth is that it is only perceived by us, we can't know it as an objective external truth. But was that truth an eternal objective external truth? Well then, that is only your perception, Mr Kant. How do we know that that applies to anything else? That's your perception, not somebody else's. It is an internally illogical statement because it is grounded ultimately on human perception that is not informed at all by any divine revelation.

There are a lot of things man can learn from his study of creation, a lot of things man can learn through the use of his own intellect, so that we are not saying that reason and experience are not valid at some points, at many points; what we are saying is that ultimately the key element that orient all of that information is something that is revealed by God. That foundational element is what we are focusing on. That's why the Word of God and the Word of God alone is sufficient.

Faith is not in contrast to knowledge, it is a knowledge that comes through revelation from God as God has spoken to us in time past, the Scripture says, through the apostles and the prophets. Our faith is focused ultimately on the Word of God. Some people says, well our faith is focused upon Jesus. Yes, but how do we know anything about Jesus. We only know what we know about Jesus because of what the Scripture says about Jesus. So our faith is really in the Scripture. It is faith in Christ but it is mediated through the Scripture as our sole authority for truth. Jesus is the object of our faith but in a very sense we are believing the statements that the Scripture teaches—that He is the promised Messiah from the Old Testament, that He died on the cross as our substitute, that He paid the penalty for sin, and that by believing in Him and Him alone we have eternal life.

But the problem that we have is the problem of authority which comes from our sin nature. From the time that Adam sinned and ate from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in essence he was saying: "I know more about the nature of reality than God does, so it is okay to eat this fruit; it is okay to disobey. When God said that the instant I eat of this I will die, He really didn't know what He was talking about. But I can learn something through my empirical experiment here by eating the fruit that God doesn't know." In essence he was setting himself up as the ultimate authority. The very core of sin is this challenge to divine authority. The sin of Adam reflects the sin of Lucifer.

This becomes the foundation for all thought that is contradictory to the thought of the Scripture. Once again, it is God's way of man's way; it is God's way or Satan's way. Either Satan's way or man's way, it is all the same—all based on asserting independence from God and that somehow apart from God we can find that truth that organizes and gives meaning, definition and value to everything. When Satan asserted that He was asserting his independence from God—his autonomy, he doesn't need God; he can get and learn all he needs from other sources. The difficulty with that is that as soon as we assert our independence at some point—if the world is what God says it is—then we are going to run up against a wall of opposition that is built into God's system. We can't just define reality how we want it to be defined and as soon as we hit that wall—because in essence what that wall is saying is your assertion of independence is inadequate, it just won't work—we get angry. Nothing really irritates us as much as when we really want to accomplish something and something stops us and we just can't do it. We react in anger. Eventually, if we live in a world that the Scripture says we are living in, when we are asserting our autonomy from God and trying to make life work we are going to hit all kinds of walls that are going to stop us. So that generates a reaction to God of antagonism.

So there is an assertion through autonomy of an alternate way of understanding or interpreting reality. Paul summarizes that in Colossians 2:8 as philosophy and empty deceit, the tradition of men. That philosophy and empty deceit is not the technical sense of philosophy but in a more general sense that would include any kind of system of thought that tries to explain ultimate reality, the purpose of man, and define what is right and what is wrong; any system of thought that thinks that it can give us the meaning and definition of life wherein we can find happiness. There are a lot of different ways and religions and philosophies that can fit into that category. Satanic thought built on autonomy and antagonism to God can manifest or express itself probably hundreds of thousands of different ways. But all of this stands in contrast to the precise exclusive claims of Scripture, and nothing seems to upset some people more than the exclusive claims of Scripture.

It only stands to reason that if the Bible is true, if there is one God who created everything in reality—all of the physical laws, all of the social laws, all of the spiritual laws—then He defines everything. Over against that we have people trying to come up with their own definitions and so there is going to be a conflict again, it is going to generate that antagonism.         

How is it that these false systems and heresies attract us? They are attractive to us because like a magnet they attract our sin nature. Our sin nature resonates and reverberates with the offer of independence from God and that whole antagonism towards God: "I will do it my way."

Mysticism play an important role in what is going on in Colosse and mysticism plays an important role in our thinking today. There is not exactly a one to one correspondence between the kinds of false teaching that went on in Colosse in the ancient world, in fact there is a lot of debate as to just what that heresy was, what the components were. Nobody is really sure. One writer said that over 44 different philosophies and religions have been suggested as the source of the Colossian heresy. But there is clearly a very strong mystical element there.

There are cycles in terms of human thought. If we understand this it is a real window into interpreting history. Man in  his independence from God will seek to define knowledge and learn truth through reason alone. Reason always eventually shows itself to be an inadequate source of ultimate truth. So reason will be rejected and in its place will come empiricism, the view that somehow through the study of the universe, through our experience through the five senses, we can some to ultimate truth. But ultimately empiricism is always viewed to be an inadequate source of ultimate truth. Well if man's reason cannot answer these fundamental questions of life through either rationalism or empiricism—what both have in common is they are based on a rigorous use of logic and a faith in human ability—then we can't know truth. So scepticism always follows, i.e. how do you know that anything is true?

Nobody can live on the basis of pure scepticism. Scepticism is so negative. Nobody likes to be around a sceptic all the time and nobody can live on the basis of scepticism. People have to live as if there really is meaning and hope and value in life, they can't live as if there is no hope, no future and that at the time of death something doesn't continue on into eternity. It is so hopeless, so dark that people have to throw away all of their intellectual reasoning and arguments and leap into the darkness of pure subjectivity to find happiness. And that is mysticism. Mysticism says if man's native intellectual ability through logic can't give us answers through reason alone or empiricism alone, and scepticism says there are no answers (and we can't live as if there are no answers), then we have to look inside and just hope for something against hope but there is no real objective criteria, validation or source of knowledge. That is the essence of mysticism.

Scripture says that the ultimate authority is revelation. It comes from God. I can know it is true because somebody who is eternal and who was there, for example at creation, has told me what happened. I don't have to be able to identify it or verify it through systems of reason or empiricism because ultimately not all of the data is there. Because what they exclude is data from the eyewitness report which is in the first chapters of Genesis. So revelation is the idea of objective disclosure from God. And we use logic and reason—in contrast to mysticism which rejects logic and reason—but it is dependent upon God and the Scriptures.

Everything we believe comes from one of these sources. So are we going to believe on the authority of God's Word alone? Or are we going to believe on the basis of what human minds come up with by excluding what God has said? Revelation doesn't exclude the use of reason or experience but it limits it to the framework that God has revealed.

If we try to understand what this Colossian heresy is we need to reverse engineer it. What we mean by that is we are just going to look at what the text says in relation to this false teaching that was becoming so influential and negative in Colosse and just point out some of the things we learn from observing the text and see if we can attach it to anything specifically.

First of all we have philosophy in the strict sense of the term, the philosophical source from Greek philosophy. Stoicism was one of the major philosophical traditions that is dealt with in the New Testament, e.g. Paul deals with some Stoic claims in Acts 17:18. It was probably the most influential philosophy at the time of the first century. The goal of Stoicism was to teach people to attain happiness by being in control of their lives. Its emphasis was on virtue, self-discipline and control of the details of life. It rejected a view of God who existed as a person and instead held to an imperialistic pantheism, so that God is viewed as in all of nature. So God is part of creation, essentially. There is no spiritual world, everything is purely material.

The other view that was dominant at this time was Epicureanism which too often today is misrepresented as "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die." It promoted pleasure and friendship but it wasn't to be a selfish pleasure. It was defined in terms of a very simple, frugal life. There were also sceptic who were around in the first century, elements of Platonic rationalism. So some people define it with one of these philosophical elements in the early church. All of them are present today in one way or another. There was also an emphasis on circumcision, brought out in verse 11, so this idea would come from Judaism. The issue there is: is this a Judaistic heresy like Paul dealt with in Galatia, or has it just picked up some ideas from Judaism into the mix? There were clearly some ascetic elements in this false teaching. We see dietary regulations—don't eat, don't touch, regulations regarding certain feast days related to new moons and especially the Sabbath observance. This is seen in Colossians 2:16, 20, 21.

Sabbath regulation clearly shows that there was a Jewish element to this. Then there was the worship of angels, Colossians 2:18. Seeking knowledge of what has not been revealed, so it brings in this mysticism blend. In all of this what have they done? They have given up the sufficiency of Christ, which includes sufficiency of revelation. So eternal truth has many, many sources. They were emphasizing the stoicheia [stoixeia], a Greek term related to the elemental principles of the world. In Greek philosophy this would ultimately refer to fire, wind, earth and water. These are the basic core elements that the pre socratics had made up of everything—these four elements in various combinations. What would also happen is they would assign gods to these different core elements, and then by assigning deity to that this would lead to idolatry because they would be worshipping the elements, the god who represents the elements. All of these were perceived from a fundamental emphasis on self-indulgence: I'm rejecting the authority of what God has revealed and I'm going to substitute my own ideas for that.

Mysticism is really difficult for a lot of people to understand even though we are probably mystical in some sense and don't know it. We all have times when we rely upon intuition or impression. Mysticism is an individual emotional sense of identification with no specific expressible content in which language points itself to an inner non-rational subjective experience of something. In other words, there is an internal sense that something is right or wrong, that this is what I should do, and you can't even put it into words. If you can't put it into words you can't verify it, because when you put something into words then you are expressing a proposition and any proposition by definition can be validated or invalidated. So it is just this sense of something as being true or real. It is non-rational, you can't evaluate it at all, it is a subjective experience, and it can only be indicated by making certain statements about it. But making statements about a non-word impression is self-contradictory. Mysticism posits two kinds of knowledge, one that is based on learned information and another is based on impressions or feelings. But impressions or feelings trump what you learn through specific external logical facts. When it comes to Christianity those impressions in Christian forms of mysticism—the non-verbal, non-verifiable impressions or feelings—trump revelation, and so we begin to interpret what God says in terms of how we feel. It is not really an emotion; it is just this inner sense of something being right or wrong.

In the next four verses this has become the issue. There is this religious system that borrows from a lot of different ideas. There are two commands: "Therefore no one is to act as your judge; Let no one keep defrauding." When you buy into any kind of false system of authority it is going to rob you and cheat you spiritually on the basis of God's Word. The past thing Paul says in this four-verse section Colossians 2:19 is the real issue, because whenever we are buying into some other system of authority what we are basically saying is that the source and meaning in life isn't God and His Word and Jesus Christ, it comes from something else. We may be camouflaging it by saying Christ plus or God plus or Scripture plus but ultimately we are saying that this other thing that is added becomes the really key element in being able to know truth and meaning in life. The problem with these people who bought into this is that they are "not holding fast to the head" which is Jesus Christ—which means holding on to Jesus alone. Colossians 2:19 NASB "and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God."

How do we grow? We grow only on the basis of Christ alone. This is another claim of exclusivity. And this is what Christ has provided for us, the only source of growth. The only growth is spiritually; the only growth is a church—qualitatively, not quantitatively in terms of numbers although that may or may not happen.