Colossians 2:16-19: All these Ism's cause a Schism.

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Bible Studies in Colossians

Colossians 2:16-19: All these Ism's cause a Schism.

by I Gordon

In the last message from Colossians we saw that the true message is Jesus plus nothing. Colossians 2:8-15 spoke about how all believers are 'Complete in Him'. That is the believer's true starting position. The believer has been identified completely in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and has been forgiven all sins. Good news! You might also remember why Paul needed to stress these truths to those at Colossae and that was because they were being hammered by all sorts of false doctrines that essentially made the message Jesus plus something. And that is not the gospel. Not good news. The deception came from all angles and all forms but the ones addressed in verses 16-23 fit into the following simple, light, categories:

Ritualism, Legalism, Gnosticism, Mysticism and Asceticism 

That's all. If you have any other ism's that I haven't got which I could add to that list it would be great to hear from you. Now despite all these terms, stay with me here. Beware of 'sleepyism'. Or 'glazed-over-ism'... I see that kicking in! But stay with me for despite the confusing names there are very real things listed in this passage in Colossians that do affect both the church and individual Christians today.

So if the last message was what to grasp and focus on, this message is mainly what to avoid. The last message centred on what a believer should feed and meditate on where as this message speaks of what can cause you to become ill. Most Christians generally like to focus on the former and avoid the later... and it would be nice if we lived in an age that allowed for such a narrow positive perspective. But, alas, this is not that age - that age will come but only when the Lord returns. In this age you've got to be awake and alert! This is emphasised in Paul's last letter, in the last chapter that he wrote before his death:

2Ti 4:1-4 'I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: (2) preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. (3) For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, (4) and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.'  [1] 

You don't have to be Einstein to know that those days are with us. So let's have a look at the issues that were facing the Colossians and see whether they still apply today. I think we'll find that there is nothing new under the sun. We'll also look at one example of deception from the Old Testament.

Enter the first isms - Beware Legalism and Ritualism

Col 2:16-17 '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.'

The first thing to avoid is legalism and its trusty side kick, ritualism. Legalism is using human effort to fulfil man-made or God given laws as a basis for your salvation or spiritual standing before God. Essentially this is Jesus plus add-ons that you have to continue to do. Its side kick is always ritualism because the extra add-ons that are commanded to maintain your salvation or spiritual standing eventually just become empty rituals - performed repeatedly but without the heart or faith of the one performing it. Now we read that the specific laws that were coming upon the Colossians concerned what was right to eat and drink, Jewish feasts, new moons and Sabbaths - these all came from the Jewish sector and were based on Old Testament law. The Colossian believers were being judged because they weren't doing what some thought they still had to do. They were probably hearing:  'You can't just eat what you'd like. Don't break God's dietary laws!', 'How come you aren't keeping the feasts? They are God ordained and everlasting. They have to be kept if you want to be truly spiritual and right with God!' 'The Sabbath was made for man and given by God. How dare you do that work on the holy day?'  Now it's not just then. There is nothing new under the sun. Many of these same teachings can be heard in the Seventh Day Adventist churches today.  [2] 

Do not let anyone judge you...

What does the Bible say to such things? 'Do not let anyone judge you...' This really is one of the great passages in the New Testament on Christian freedom. And as Paul wrote to the Galatians 'It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.' (Gal 5:1)

So why is Paul so strong on this? What are the problems with observing such things?

Firstly, they are just outward observances that don't actually change or affect the heart of man at all. In the end they just become legalism and empty ritualism and God hates empty ritualism. He always has. Read through the Old Testament you find Israel going through the motions of outward observance but their hearts are far from God. God hated it. Jesus hated it. That's why the Pharisees got such a serve.

Jesus said to the Pharisees: '  Mat 15:7-9 'You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: (8) 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. (9) They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' " And as Christians we too need to be careful that what we do doesn't just become empty ritualism. We can come to church, worship God, listen to His word, and yet be a million miles away while we do it. You could do all the right 'churchy' things yet at the same time you are out on the golf course, or at home starting to prepare lunch or riding through some tracks mountain biking. We all do it. But we all need to watch our hearts that the Christian life doesn't just become outward observances that we do, empty rituals, without our hearts being in it anymore.

The second problem is these things are not the reality. 

This is expressed in verse 17:  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 

They are simply shadows and pictures of the true reality that is in Christ. And it is the true reality in Jesus that we should be focusing on. There are gentile people I know who obviously think that it will be more spiritual to go to Jewish Messianic fellowship and participate in the Old Testament festivals and ceremonies. You may learn something from that but it is again only focusing on the shadow, not the reality, and we are instructed not to do that. Or take the Sabbath as an example. I've had a few SDA's writing in to the website and they generally only write in concerning one of two topics - Soul Sleep and the Sabbath. Some people will fight tooth and nail, and even get quite agitated in trying to get you to see that the Sabbath day is Saturday. On that point, they are right of course. The Sabbath has always been from Friday evening through to Saturday evening. This hasn't changed.  [3]  But they are wrong on their application of it and are only focusing on the shadow, not the reality.

The full story is that these Old Testament laws are pictures or shadows of the true reality that we now have in Christ Jesus and it is this reality that we should be focusing on. For example, if you had a picture of your wife or your husband in your wallet, and they had gone overseas or away for an extended period, it would be quite natural to take out that photo and look at it, and long for the person. Later you'd probably take the photo out again and do the same. This is all very normal. But it would be pretty odd once your loved one is back home to be avoiding them and still drooling over the photo! We should be focusing on the reality that we have in Christ - not outward symbols, pictures and shadows that pointed to it. So lets again focus on this issue of the Sabbath and see what the spiritual reality is in Christ for this.

The spiritual reality of the rest in Christ

The New Testament tells us that there is a Sabbath rest for the people of God. (Hebrews 4:1-11) It tells us to 'enter God's rest'. This rest is not one day a week, whether you pick Saturday or Sunday, but is a promise and a command for 'Today'. 'Today if you hear my voice...' is the command of Hebrews 4. The promise of rest, the reality in Christ Jesus, is a promise for TODAY. But oh how we often fall short of this spiritual rest that is there for us.  [4] 

The fact is that we could obey the outward Sabbath laws as a legal requirement several days a week if we wanted and still not enter the true spiritual Sabbath rest that is in Christ Jesus. And again, that is what we should be focusing on for that is what God is interested in. In the small print let me give you a little example of that from the life of a wee birdy for what Iain-brain struggled to do (enter the rest), bird brain seemed to manage fine.  [5] 

Again, the Colossian church was getting hit from multiple angles and multiple deceptions. But Paul had to remind them that their sufficiency is in Christ and their focus should be Christ. Don't let legalism or empty rituals distract you. But there were more problems that needed to be addressed.

The next isms causing schisms: Mysticism & Gnosticism 

Col 2:18-19 '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.

If the first errors were from Jewish quarters, the second wave of attack came from the east through mystical or spiritual experiences outside of the Christian realm. These people were probably claiming that those at Colossae needed to follow what they were saying because they had new revelation through angelic visitations and/or visions. We should always remember what Paul said to the Galatians concerning this:

Gal 1:6-8 'I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; (7) which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. (8) But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!' 

People in all religions have 'experiences' but that doesn't mean they are from God. We need to always check them out with the word of God and not be quick to jump on board. Listen to what Paul says:

'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'. 

The enemy, using false teachers, is out to deceive you. Or, as the KJV says, 'beguile you'. The end result is defrauding you of your prize or reward. In this life our prize is the Lord Himself and the deception is likely to be a reference to getting us to focus on 'things' instead of Jesus. Though ultimately, this is likely a reference to our eternal rewards and prize. The means used to defraud were different mystical experiences. The Colossian false teachers based their teaching on visions and revelations they had supposedly received. Please note this for these things - A focus on angels, visions, being puffed up through fleshly thoughts are very common in the church today which seems to have an abundance of gullible adherents ready to follow the latest teaching and idolize men. It also is interesting to note that many of the cults get their start through some type of vision or angelic experience.  [6] 

Emergent Church Mysticism

We see the same errors of mysticism rising again in the last few years through the Emergent Church movement and their emphasis on 'Contemplative prayer'. They have prompted mystical prayer techniques which originated in the east through the use of repeating single syllable mantras to empty one's mind and then in the silence, to commune and hear from God. The Emergent church leaders have all these fancy new names for what they are teaching like 'Reinvented Christianity', 'Reimagining Christianity', 'Vintage Christianity' or 'Ancient Future'. They say they are going back to the early church to rediscover the lost treasures that the Church used to practice to experience God. But how far back do they go? Back to the first church? Back to New Testament writers and back to the scriptures? No! You won't find any of these things in the Bible or practiced by the first church. No... they go back only as far as the Catholic mystics who had already been compromised by the practices of Eastern meditation.

What did Paul say? Let no one beguile you! Let no one deceive you! Go down to the local Christian book stores and you'll find lots of books promoting these things. It's not just then... it is now! We'll carry on from here in Colossians next time but I wanted to end with one Old Testament example of this deception and beguiling.

An Old Testament Example: Even a great man of God was tricked! 

Jos 9:1-14 'Now it came about when all the kings who were beyond the Jordan, in the hill country and in the lowland and on all the coast of the Great Sea toward Lebanon, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, heard of it, (2) that they gathered themselves together with one accord to fight with Joshua and with Israel. (3)  When the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, (4) they also acted craftily and set out as envoys, and took worn-out sacks on their donkeys, and wineskins worn-out and torn and mended, (5) and worn-out and patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes on themselves; and all the bread of their provision was dry and had become crumbled. (6) They went to Joshua to the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, "We have come from a far country; now therefore, make a covenant with us." (7) The men of Israel said to the Hivites, "Perhaps you are living within our land; how then shall we make a covenant with you?" (8) But they said to Joshua, "We are your servants." Then Joshua said to them, "Who are you and where do you come from?" (9) They said to him, "Your servants have come from a very far country because of the fame of the LORD your God; for we have heard the report of Him and all that He did in Egypt,  (10) and all that He did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon king of Heshbon and to Og king of Bashan who was at Ashtaroth. (11) "So our elders and all the inhabitants of our country spoke to us, saying, 'take provisions in your hand for the journey, and go to meet them and say to them, "We are your servants; now then, make a covenant with us."' (12) "This our bread was warm when we took it for our provisions out of our houses on the day that we left to come to you; but now behold, it is dry and has become crumbled. (13) "These wineskins which we filled were new, and behold, they are torn; and these our clothes and our sandals are worn out because of the very long journey." (14)  So the men of Israel took some of their provisions, and did not ask for the counsel of the LORD. 

There is deception 101 and there is deception 102. This is an example of the later. Well thought out, looks and sounds logical. In fact it was clever enough to even catch out one of the great Old Testament saints - Joshua! The Gibeonites looked the part, they sounded the part and they said all the right things. They even mentioned about 'the fame of the Lord' which would have gone down well. It was all so good... yet it was all deception. Unfortunately there are plenty of people within the wider 'Church of God' today doing just the same thing. Now, as was mentioned, some deceivers are easy to spot. It is the ones who look and sound the part, yet can still draw you away from the truth of God's word that are the most deceptive and dangerous. So what is the key verse in this passage? Well, it is easy to spot. It is on verse 14:

 'So the men of Israel took some of their provisions, and did not ask for the counsel of the LORD.' 

They did not ask the council of the Lord. They believed that they could just sort this out themselves through what they heard and saw. It reminds us again of our need to go back to the word of God, and to ask God, whether these things be so. Do that with this study! Better safe than sorry when it comes to spiritual discernment! So this brings us back to where we began. What was the first verse from Timothy?

2Ti 4:1-'I charge thee therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ who shall judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: (2) preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. (3) For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, (4) and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths'.

This solemn charge becomes all the more important as we approach the days leading up to the return of Jesus Christ. Deception will only grow worse. We need to be prepared.

[1] ↩ What should be emphasized here is that Paul gave a solemn charge to Timothy to stick to, and teach from, the word of God. Why? Because Paul knew the time would come when people wouldn't want to hear the truth anymore. I think we are at that time. We normally blame false teachers for such things, and rightly so, but we also need to see that the desire for unbiblical teaching is coming from the people. In other words, if there weren't gullible people wanting to hear the latest 'sensational' ear-tickling message and gobbling it up, the false teachers wouldn't have a platform in which to spout forth their rubbish.

[2] ↩ The Believers Bible Commentary, (known as Big Blue in my home) says the following: ' All human religions place men under bondage to ordinances, rules, regulations, and a religious calendar. This calendar usually includes annual observances (holy days), monthly festivals (new moons), or weekly holidays (Sabbaths)... Some false cults, such as Spiritism, insist on their members abstaining from meats. For centuries Roman Catholics were not supposed to eat meat on Friday. Many churches require abstinence from certain foods during Lent. Others, like the Mormons, say that a person cannot be a member in good standing if he drinks tea or coffee. Still others, notably the Seventh Day Adventists, insist that a person must keep the Sabbath in order to please God. The Christian is not under such ordinances.' 

[3] ↩ I like what the Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee says on this. He said:

'A man once came to me and said, "I'll give you $100 if you will show me where the Sabbath day has been changed." (meaning changed to Sunday). I answered, "I don't think it has been changed. Saturday is Saturday, it is the seventh day of the week, and it is the Sabbath day... He got a gleam in his eye and said, "Then why don't you keep the Sabbath day if it hasn't been changed?" I answered, "The day hasn't changed, but I have been changed. I've become a new creation. We celebrate the first day because that is the day He rose from the grave." '

[4] ↩ My mother had a fire in her home and had to make a recent claim with her insurance company. So we received word back from them recently that they weren't going to help in any way. They cited some pathetic reasons, flimsy excuses basically, which they felt excused them from fulfilling the claim. It was, in our family's opinion, unfair. As I went to bed that night I kept think of their response. Here I was in the most restful environment... lying on my bed, not to hot, not to cold... no sounds around... perfect conditions to lay my body down to sleep in a blissful, refreshing, restful night's sleep. But do you think I could sleep? Nope! I was playing back in my mind what they had said, and then what I'd say back, and then imagining what their response would be to that, and then I'd have myself coming back with something better (in my imagination!). Now, this went on for some time. I wanted to let it go but I wasn't getting any closer to a restful sleep, though the conditions externally at least, were perfect for it. In fact, if I was to be completely honest, even though in reality it wasn't a big deal, in my mind and imaginations I got to the point where I was imagining doing a drive-by stoning, where I'd throw a stone through the State Insurance company's window and then speed off in my car! It was about then that I thought - 'ok, goodness... what a dark little heart you have!' Physically I wasn't moving a muscle. But was I entering God's rest? Not on your Nellie! Not even close. It was just the opposite in fact. Though it was a small thing, I couldn't let it go or give the situation to the Lord but kept dwelling on it till it got out of proportion to actual reality. Maybe you've done something similar that has got you worked up and taken your peace. Anyway, I should add that I haven't, as far as I know, ever actually thrown a stone through any window in my whole life. Bricks are more my preference. Ok, that's not true either. The odd tennis ball may have gone through but that was all an accident in trying to be the world's best tennis player. No luck there. But this little illustration is just given to show that the real rest is something that goes on inside a man or women and we can have perfect conditions externally and still not enter the rest that God has for us.

[5] ↩ I popped round to my friends last weekend and as I approached the front door, I saw a little bird in their garden. He just seemed to be sitting there, not moving. I watched for a while and then thought I had better investigate as it seemed a little odd. So I went over and found that he had successfully tied himself up really tight in some bird netting they had over the garden. He was basically like Houdini in a straight jacket - though not yet mastering or displaying any of Houdini's escapism skills. He had a wing all tight in a weird position behind his head and his legs were all tied by the netting. As I got close he obviously got frightened and was shaking himself as best he could in this netting and was snapping his beak saying 'you take another step closer and I'll have ya! I'll bite ya... I will!' So I went inside and grabbed some scissors and went back out. As I got close with my little scissors he again starting snapping his little beak and trying desperately to move any muscle in his body that wasn't completely tied up. And yet, and this is the part that got me thinking later on, as I put my hand around him, and held him in my hand, he went completely still. Limp even. No more flapping. No more snapping. He seemed to be able to submit and rest. Now I don't know what goes on in a bird brain that made him submit and stop fighting. Maybe he's thinking 'So this is how it ends...I'm trapped by one of those giant walker creatures and his pair of scissors'. Maybe God spoke and says 'Be still - do not fear'. Maybe he's thinking 'my only chance is to play dead, and when he least expects it, I'll surprise him and make a break for it.' I'm not sure what goes on in a bird brain. All I know is that as I held him and started to cut the netting off he didn't move a muscle. It's a good thing too because it was so tight around his body and under his wing that had he been struggling it would have made it really difficult to free him. Even without him moving a muscle there were times when I thought I might end up cutting him. But I cut it all off successfully. My friends daughters, Bianca and Lucia, were watching on and I had visions of launching him up into the air saying 'be free little birdy' and watching him flap one munted wing and come plummeting back down to earth... but thankfully that was not the case! He was off, 'good as gold.' Probably thinking that he has outsmarted me with his playing dead trick!

Moral of the story: welll this got me thinking later. We are like this birdy... we flap and we snap and we work ourselves in a worse mess than we were before. We can feel trapped and unable to move at times and think there is no way out. It can be over a health issue, finance, relationships, and jobs - any of the many things that get thrown at us in this life. But we also need to learn from this little bird, this little Yellow Hammer, to be still and submit and rest knowing that we are in the hand of God. When I held this bird in my hand he just totally relaxed. And as believers we are in God's hand. Walking in this truth is the true Sabbath rest that is the reality in Christ Jesus. This is the true rest of faith.

[6] ↩ Mormons: As a teenager, Joseph Smith had a vision of God and Jesus (apparently) who spoke to him. A few years later an angel called Moroni instructed him about some golden plates which he was to translate. The rest is history...The SDA's hold Ellen White as a Prophet. It is reported that she saw visions from an early age and one was from an angel guiding the Adventists where to go. From what I have read, her extensive writings are basically held on the same level as the Bible as divinely inspired scripture. Even recently we had Todd Bentley leading the 'so called' Lakeland Revival. Bentley talks about going to heaven and talking to the Apostle Paul and in another incident receiving instruction from a female angel called 'Emma' - Of course the Lakeland revival fizzled when God apparently told Bentley to divorce his wife and he ran off with someone else. Why are we surprised?