Introduction: “Not what it seems”
Some years ago, I stumbled across a vibrant church in Puchong. Their members seem to be committed followers of Jesus Christ, eager to serve Him and share with others about Jesus. Many would even given up a year or two of their life to share their faith. Chances are some of you have met them, or seen them in action: young men, white shirt, black pants, wearing a badge.
Problem is that they don’t believe that Jesus really is God. They don’t believe that the Bible is really the Word of God, but it’s corrupt and missing key teachings. And they don’t believe that Jesus has done enough to bring us into the eternal kingdom. You have to believe God plus work hard to qualify for the Celestial Kingdom. In other words, they don’t believe in the same gospel as us, because this church, also known as the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church), they are actually a cult!
What makes false teaching so dangerous is because they don’t look like false teaching. If a Buddhist monk or an Ustaz were to turn up one Sunday, before he says anything, you already have your Bibles ready to check against him. But false teachers like the Mormons – they look very much like you and me. They may also appear kinder and more interesting than the average Christian. No wonder, according to the BBC, there are about 12 million Mormons and over 50,000 young Mormon missionaries around the world today.
Full spiritual blessings in Christ (2:6-15)
False teaching was one of the main reasons why Paul wrote to the Colossians. In 2:6-7, Paul reminds the church that Christian living is not just about deciding to receive Jesus as Lord, but an ongoing process of living in him, a lifelong journey of walking in Christ. But in 2:8, he warns that we must not think of the walk as a nice and leisurely stroll in the park: “See to it that no one takes you captive ...”
There are forces at work that threaten to kidnap us, to hijack us from our secured position in Christ.
Over the last two thousand years, the church has faced all kinds of threats. Many today are still living in danger of losing everything they own for following Jesus. The danger the Colossian church was facing, however, was much more subtle. Paul calls them “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (2:8): looks solid from the outside, but no substance!
Exactly what these false teachings were? Nobody knows for sure. But they spell trouble because they make the church captive of human tradition and other spiritual influences instead of Christ!
Paul exposes these errors for what they truly are by contrasting them against the true spiritual treasure that is in Christ. For, unlike the hollow philosophy that was promoted by these false teachers, “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (2:9). God is pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ, and only in Christ! (cf. 1:19) Which means that not only is Jesus uniquely qualified to make peace for all things by his blood shed on the cross, but, “in Christ you have been brought to fullness” (2:10). ‘Fullness’ means nothing else is needed, nothing else can be added. In other words, every spiritual blessing that you could receive from God, you’ve got it in Jesus!
Paul explains this further in 2:11-15 by drawing upon the Jewish practice of circumcision. Since the days of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, devout Jews would circumcise every male 8 days or older in their household. They do this not because of medical reasons, but because a covenant between God and Abraham, found in Genesis 17: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” (Gen 17:10-11)
Now, can the removal of the foreskin of a boy’s penis magically transform him into a child of God? Of course not! It’s a symbolic act, a physical mark that identifies them as God’s chosen people. I suppose we can think if it as their MyKad or passport that guarantees them entry to the kingdom of God and its privileges.
It is interesting that Paul should mention circumcision here. We know from Acts and Galatians that some Jewish Christians were insisting that non-Jewish Christians must also be circumcised to enjoy full membership in the church. Perhaps the Colossians were also facing this issue.
But Paul explains 2:11 that anyone who is Christ is already circumcised. Though not like the Jewish circumcision which was only ceremonial and symbolic, but “with a circumcision not performed by human hands”, a circumcision by Christ where “the whole self ruled by the flesh was put off”, a circumcision that is fully effective!
When or how exactly did Christ circumcise a Christian? When you were “buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12). As a result, “God made us alive with Christ” (2:13). All our sins will no longer be counted against us. And no one will ever be able to accuse us of any sin against God, because God himself has taken all such accusations away and nailed them to the cross (2:14-15).
Now, I know there are lots going on in this verse, but the main idea is simply this: When we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, that Jesus died for us to bring us peace and new life with God, that is the MyKad, the passport that Jesus has given us which guarantees us full privileges in his eternal kingdom. Guaranteed because the work of Jesus is fully completed and fully effective!
Now before we continue, I need to clarify one thing. Because Paul used the word baptism in 2:12, some have suggested that “baptism” has replaced “circumcision” for NT believers, and therefore all Christians must be baptised to receive full blessings in Jesus.
Is this what Paul was saying? If we think Paul is replacing one religious ritual with another, I’m afraid we are missing the point! Baptism, like circumcision, is also merely a sign! The reality is our burial and resurrection with Christ. Paul’s point is that we no longer rely on any religious ritual, not even circumcision, but purely believing and continuing to believe in the sufficiency of what Jesus has done for us – do you see? So let us be very careful not to add anything to the gospel of God’s grace, lest we lose the gospel!
Spot the difference (2:16-23)
In 2:16-23, Paul turns his attention to hollow and deceptive philosophical teaching that seem pious but we in reality undermining the truth of the gospel. How do you spot false teaching in the church? While the gospel is fully focused on Jesus, they are preoccupied with other stuff!
Shadow vs reality
In 2:16, we see false teachings that are preoccupied with rules and regulations on food, drink, and holy festivals, things people need to do!
I once walked into a Christian bookstore and spotted this book right at the entrance: “Fasting: opening the door to a deeper, more intimate, more powerful relationship with God”. Now I won’t be surprised if the book is selling well, because it fits what we think being spiritual looks like, doesn’t it? A spiritual person is one who fasts, one who is active on prayer chains, someone who takes the Lord’s day seriously, Lent, Advent, and so forth.
Not that these things are bad in themselves. Fasting, prayer, quiet reflections during Lent and Advent, they can be helpful. But, Paul says, we must keep them in their place.
2:17 is key, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” A shadow indicates that something is there, but when the lights come on, the shadow disappears! Now that Christ has come, Paul says, “do not let anyone judge you” by them (2:16). Focus instead on Christ.
Friends, this is where it can become a problem for many who advocate things like fasting, prayer methods, and so forth! Not only do they harp about these things all the time, they even judge others by these things. They are still preoccupied with the shadow instead of the substance: Christ!
Like the book I saw, they treat spiritual disciplines as “a door to a deeper, more intimate, more powerful relationship with God” ... as if we have not yet been filled in Christ!
Now, maybe in St Andrew’s we have the opposite problem. Ours is a lack of emphasis on spiritual discipline. We need encouragement to pray more faithfully, personally and corporately, we need help to cultivate spiritual disciplines. But as we encourage one another on these things, remember: focus on Jesus, not the shadows!
False humility vs true spirituality
A second feature of false teachers is pinpointed in 2:18: “delight in false humility and the worship of angels”. Again, scholars struggle to identify exactly what these things refer to. But most agree that it has something to do with special methods of “spiritual preparations” that enables one to worship in a higher spiritual level, or even join in the angelic worship in the heavenly places.
The OT mentions prophets who had specific visions of God. Isaiah saw God seated upon a throne that’s high and lifted up (Isa 6). Ezekiel saw God on a throne being carried by the four living creatures (Ezk 1). Perhaps there were spiritual gurus among the Colossians, people who claim to worship at a higher level, going into great detail about their visions of spiritual realities.
Notice that Paul is not so much disputing the possibility of such visions. After all, Paul himself was not unfamiliar with special spiritual encounters: remember how he encountered with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus? How he had regular visions from God throughout his ministry? How he was given the gift to do all kinds of miracles in the name of Jesus? The real question is this: Are these encounters a true measure of deep spirituality?
Friends, we are all drawn to these things, aren’t we? Imagine if I were to invite you to two meetings this week. Which would you rather attend? A regular Bible study, or a spectacular worship concert, where people worship at a higher level, where everyone has a special word from God, where you hear testimonies upon testimonies of visions in the heavenly realm?
Deep in our hearts, we all long for some deeper spiritual experience. But look at what Paul says in 2:18: people who are preoccupied with these things are “puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind”. They are not humble but “puffed up” – proud, arrogant! Their mind is “unspiritual” – preoccupied by earthly things, not things of God! Most importantly, 2:19, “They have lost connection with the head … ”. They have lost touch with Christ!
Friends, do you hear what Paul is saying? These people who claim to experience a higher level of spiritual worship ... fact is, they have lost touch with spiritual reality!
Paul wants the church to understand this: preoccupation with these deeper spiritual experiences is a symptom of immaturity, not spirituality! “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom ... but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (2:23) Their packaging looks impressive, but they have no substance. For they have moved away from Christ, the Head of the church, the source of true growth that is from God!
“Have you done enough?”
Friends, do you know what’s the devil’s primary weapon in spiritual warfare? Let me give you a clue: his name “Satan” means accuser. Consider his 3 main appearances in the Bible. In Genesis 3, he accused God: God is not really good. In Job 1, he accused God’s people: no one really trusts God. In Matthew 4, he accused the Son of God: God’s beloved Son wouldn’t end up on the cross.
Satan is still up to the same tricks: tempting us to doubt God, doubt our faith, doubt the cross. False teachings create insecurity in the church and/or direct us to yearn for something apart from Christ. Ultimately, they serve the agenda of Satan.
But thanks be to God, he has silenced, shamed, and triumphed over him in the cross of Jesus!
So friends, have you received Christ Jesus the Lord? See to it that no one takes you captive by hollow and deceptive philosophy. Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on worship of angels or any other form of so-called deeper spiritual encounters. But let us “continue to live [our] lives in Christ, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as [we] were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”