The Fullness: Colossians 2:16-19
Bad Religion – 2:16-19
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
In this paragraph, Paul warns the Colossians against the influences of bad religion. More specificially, he tells Christians not to let false teachers judge them by their religious observance or spiritual experiences. Many scholars believe that Paul had specific opponents in mind when he wrote the letter, likely a group of Judaizers (strict Jewish Christians who taught that salvation was open to Gentiles through Christ, but that all must obey Torah to be saved) like those who corrupted the Galatian churches. While this is quite plausible, I struggle to see that Paul is singling out any particular group or teacher, as he does in Galatians or 2 Corinthians. It seems more likely that the apostle is drawing on his long experience and warning the fledgling church about the types of false teaching that he has seen creep into churches elsewhere. He is alerting the church that attacks will come from both sides – from Jewish teachers and pagans alike.
In verse 16, he is clearly sounding the alarm against Jewish Christians who would seek to place Gentile believers under the yoke of Torah. Food laws and holy days were essential to the life and culture of Judaism, and Jewish converts would have sensed no need to abandon these. But Paul is clear that the Gospel does not demand Gentile believers take up these practices. No doubt he is remembering here the words of Peter at the Jerusalem Council: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”[i] Torah observance never saved anyone; therefore the Gentile Christians could not be condemned for failing to keep it.
The religion of Torah observance is merely the long shadow of the person of Christ.
Just as the turn toward a legalistic expression of faith is a temptation, so, too, is the turn toward an experiential expression of faith. In verse 18, Paul warns against those who urge believers to pursue spiritual experiences as the mark of true Christian maturity. “Worship of angels” is a difficult phrase, and it could mean either the act of worshipping angels or worshipping God with the angels. In either case, the intent is to create a spiritual experience centered around angels instead of Christ. To pursue visions and experiences like this, rather than communion with Jesus, would disqualify a believer because “the vision becomes the focus; Jesus becomes secondary.”[iii] We lose the true faith whenever we remove Jesus from its center.
Paul warns against those who urge believers to pursue spiritual experiences as the mark of true Christian maturity.
The person who teaches the pursuit of spiritual visions and experiences has lost connection to Christ, whom Paul calls the Head. He is the one from whom, and in whom, the body – which is the Church – grows. “This means that whatever growing the church would do, it would do because of its connection to Christ.”[v] We cannot experience spiritual growth (as the ESV calls it, “grows with a growth that is from God”) apart from Christ. Jesus, after all, is the one who brings us to fullness. There is nothing lacking in Christ that can be found in observance of Torah or in the pursuit of spiritual experiences. “Private visions isolate individuals; dietary laws isolated the Jewish nation from the rest of the world; but in God’s plan all belong together in mutual interdependence.”[vi]
There is no secret encounter for Christians that is more powerful, more spiritual, or more life-giving than the encounter with Jesus Christ at his cross and in his resurrection.
Religion is a vital part of life, but only if it points us to God rather than replaces him. We are always under attack from forces on the right and left that seek to move Christ out of the center. But the supremacy of Christ is the essence of true religion. Whether we are obeying Torah or pursuing spiritual experiences, all must be done with Christ at the center. All too often a new movement comes along pushing a certain spiritual experience, or a certain strict obedience, and many believers get sucked into its grip. But what good does it do us to follow a shadow, or bow before an angel, when the very Son of God has appeared? These things may sound Christian, but the truth is in the heart of them. Do they bring us near to Christ, or do they puff us up by measuring our spirituality by rule-keeping and vision-questing? Angels and shadows are poor substitutes for the crucified and risen Lord.
The supremacy of Christ is the essence of true religion.
Not only does false teaching move us away from Christ, it moves us away from one another. Rule-keeping and vision-questing exalt the individual above the community. But that is not how God causes his church to grow. Our interdependence is the design of God. He wants us to be in community with one another, and he causes us to grow only so long as we live humbly within the local church. As N.T. Wright says, “It is no shame when a Christian finds that he or she cannot grow spiritually without support and help from fellow believers; it is, rather, a surprise that anyone should have thought such a thing possible, let alone desirable.”[vii] To seek the rule of Torah or the spiritual experiences of angels is to show contempt to one’s fellow Christian sojourners, and to scorn God’s Church. You are not a superstar. You are not above the daily life and practice of the Church, and especially of your local church. There is no other route to spiritual maturity except through the personal encounter of the risen Lord in the context of your local church.
[i] Acts 15:10-11
[ii] Melick, R. R. (1991). Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 32, p. 268). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
[iii] Anders, M. (1999). Galatians-Colossians (Vol. 8, p. 309). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
[iv] Melick, R. R. (1991). Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Vol. 32, p. 272). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
[vi] Wright, N.T. (1986). Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon (p.129). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.