Bible Studies in Colossians
Col 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
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.'
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.