Rules – 2:20-23

20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

The first verse of this section requires two explanations. First, what does it mean that believers have “died with Christ?” In Paul’s language, to die with Christ means to be crucified with him. In other words, believers participate, in spirit, in the death that Jesus experienced in his body. This is what is symbolized in our baptism. We are buried with Christ in death as we go under the water, and we rise again to new life as we come out of the water.

Second, what does Paul mean when he talks about “the elemental spiritual forces of this world?” Interpretations vary. Several translations use the phrase “elemental spirits,” while other commentators use the term “basic principles.” In their respective translations, N.T. Wright and Eugene Peterson opt for “worldly elements” and “pretentious and infantile religion.” It is difficult to say, with precision, what Paul had in mind, but he seems to be talking about paradigmatic human spirituality, which is always full of rules but devoid of spiritual value. Humanity’s basic and universal efforts to be better are useless, and therefore ought to be rejected.

Humanity’s basic and universal efforts to be better are useless, and therefore ought to be rejected.
This type of life, bogged down by religious rules and regulations, belongs to the old way of living. When we die with Christ, we die to the fruitless human efforts to become more than we are. Growth, which we have seen earlier in this chapter, is only possible through the power of, and connection to, Christ. Humanity’s rules, which sound like a list of Don’ts, don’t have lasting value because they only function within this world. This kind of asceticism doesn’t actually make us better, because “asceticism has to do with the rudiments of the world and not the riches of the kingdom.”[i] Asceticism, whether Jewish or pagan, cannot teach us about the kingdom of God because it does not deal with the things of the kingdom. It is focused, often with laser-like precision, on the things from which we must abstain in this life. “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch,” Paul mocks. But abstinence from food or drink do not, in and of themselves, bring us closer to God.

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