Freedom from Religion (Col. 2:16-23)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to Colossians 2. This morning we will begin in verse 16 and finish with verse 23 which is the final verse in Chapter 2. So turn with me now to Colossians 2.

The title of my sermon for today is “Freedom From Religion.” And in order to make clear to you what I mean by “Freedom from Religion,” it is necessary for me to begin this sermon with some explanation of what I mean by the word “religion” in my sermon title. And it is also necessary for me to explain why we need to be set free from it. So I will begin this morning with that task.

First of all, when I use the word “religion” this morning, what I have in mind is the concept of “man making his own way to God.” I am thinking about “a man made system of rules, regulations, activities, experiences, rituals, and practices that supposedly lead man to God.” Ultimately, that is the aim of every religion apart from Christianity. It is man’s attempt to follow certain procedures that will lead him to God or to some form of utopia. That is what all man-made religions look like. And that is where many Christians, even many sincere Christians, will drift into if we are not diligent in reminding ourselves that Christianity is not about man making his own way to God, but Christianity is about God coming to man, and making a way for man to come to him.

One of the things that Jesus Christ accomplished, then, was to set us free from the thousands of man-made systems of religion that require us to make our own way to God. Systems that require us to obey a vast set of rules and regulations and participate in certain practices that have nothing to do with drawing closer to God or becoming more like his Son.

And this morning we will see in our passage for today that this is exactly what the Colossian Christians were being confronted with. They were being confronted with the choice to continue to trust in Christ alone for spiritual wholeness and eternal security or to trust in a conglomeration of rules and regulations and man-made rituals and practices that were supposedly the “Key” to a full Christian life, but were in fact a sham. A sham that in the end would have an opposite effect than the one the false teachers were promising.

So by the title, “Freedom From Religion,” what I am talking about is freedom from these man-made systems of religion that promise something they can never deliver on. I am talking about a freedom to leave all of those things behind and place your faith in Christ alone to reconcile you to God, and to give you spiritual wholeness, and to mold you into the person he wants you to be.

So look with me now in your Bibles at Colossians 2:16–23. Follow along with me as I read.

16 Therefore 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. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. 20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:16–23 ESV)

Freedom From Legalism (vv. 16–17)

I have said in a few of my previous sermons that this false teaching that was threatening the Colossian church was a weird combination of Judaism and Paganism. Well in our first two verses this morning we see its Jewish influences. We see in verse 16 that the Colossians were being urged to submit to Jewish regulations regarding food and drink and regarding the observance of special days and feasts.

But you might be thinking to yourself, “But Jimmy, these were not man-made rules, these regulations regarding diet and festival observance were part of the law God gave to his people.” And that is true… for the most part. I say for the most part because, let us also remember that by the time Jesus came on the scene, the Jewish people had added on to the law of God their own set of rules and regulations that were intended to “help” the Jewish people from coming anywhere near the breaking the laws that God has established for them. They had put up these guard rails, so to speak.

But that does not do away with the fact that God did at one point establish a variety of laws regarding appropriate food and festivals and days that must be observed. And yet, we read in the New Testament that Christ fulfilled these things and we are no longer bound to them and we are free to eat things like Barbecue and Oysters. Jesus himself said:

18 Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:18–19 ESV)

And in his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul was addressing a similar problem of false teaching and there he berates the Galatians for falling back into old patterns of unnecessary festival observance. Notice too, how similar the language is to what we have seen in Colossians:

8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. (Galatians 4:8–11 ESV)

And later in Galatians Paul says:

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:18 ESV)

Well, the point this morning is not to get into how Jesus fulfilled these things. And notice I am saying “fulfilled,” not “did away with”, there is a difference. The point is to remind us that as Christians we are not under a set of rules and regulations. Look at verse 17. Paul says these laws about food and drink and festivals and new moon celebrations and Sabbaths, all those rules were a “shadow” of the things to come. And that the substance of them belongs to Christ. In other words, these observances were foreshadowing something that was ultimately fulfilled in Christ. For example, we don’t have to observe the Passover Feast because Christ is our Passover lamb. In other words, as Christians we are no longer under the Mosaic Covenant. We have a New Covenant in Christ’s blood. We live under the law of Christ.

Now please don’t go away from here saying, “Well the preacher said I can do what ever I want.” Because that is not what I am saying at all. God’s moral law still gives us direction as Christians. It still defines what is sin. God’s moral law given to us in the Old Testament tells us about the character of God and what should be the character of a Christian. So as Christians we are not bound to the ceremonial laws and the dietary laws and the sacrificial laws, but we do submit to the moral law of God.

But in Colossians, these false teachers were coming along trying to throw the burden of the ceremonial and dietary laws back on the Colossian Christians. They were saying, “If you want to be spiritually complete, you must submit to these rules and regulations.” So to answer the question I started with, “How can I say these laws regarding diet and festival and ceremony were man-made when they were originally given by God?” My answer to that is that they are man-made because those laws are no longer valid for us as Christians. They are man-made because men are bringing them back from the dead and piling them on top of these Christians as necessities for salvation. Christ plus rules. Christ plus ceremony.

So Paul urges the Colossians not to believe accusations that they are spiritually incomplete for not observing Jewish regulations which, because of Christ, are no longer necessary or obligatory. Paul reminds them that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism and that the Old Covenant regulations and rituals were, therefore, only foreshadowing the perfect reality which arrived with Jesus Christ.

I said earlier that by the time Jesus came on the scene, the Jewish people had added on to the law of God their own set of rules and regulations that were intended to “help” the Jewish people from coming anywhere near breaking the laws that God has established for them. This is what Jesus was referring to when he asked the Pharisees, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3). What the Pharisees were upset about in this case was that the disciples were not washing their hands before they ate. A rule the Pharisees came up with that had no basis in Scripture. These rules were like guard rails put in place to keep people from running off the road. In this case the intent of the Pharisees was to keep people ceremonially pure. But washing hands before a meal was not a part of God’s law, but they were making it as important as the law.

And we have seen similar things in our own time. Some of you who are a bit older than me and are probably more familiar with what one pastor calls “The Big 5”: dancing, drinking, smoking, gambling, and theater going. Like the Pharisees who were trying to put guard rails in place to keep people from sinning, this list of five things was originally intended to be guard rails protecting us from ourselves. But over time they became elevated to the level of law and even requirements for church membership.

The restriction on dancing was originally to keep young men and women from being sexually tempted. The prohibition on drinking was to keep people from getting drunk which results in all sorts of problems. And while you are not drinking, don’t smoke either… Why? It just looks bad and smells bad. And don’t gamble… I do think a good case can be made from the Bible why no one should gamble so I am going to give that one my stamp of approval. And finally, the big one, “Don’t go to those picture shows.” Now, I know what the point was with that one. There is a bunch of garbage that plays at movie theaters every night of every week. A bunch of stuff that we have no business as Christians looking at.

BUT… lots of people dance without having any sexual temptation. And what if a married couple wants to dance. Or what about a Father dancing with his daughter? Now just so you know, I don’t dance, but that is solely related to my inability to dance and not my religious beliefs (but because I do know that if I danced, even if I was a good dancer, there would be some Christians offend by a pastor who dances, I would restrain myself from it for their conscience sake).

And lots of people drink without getting drunk. Is it a sin for a husband and wife to share a glass of wine together over dinner? Jesus’ first miracle was making wine from water. And you can say well, that wine was not strong like our wine today, and you might be right, but evidently people were still getting drunk from it because we have the warnings in the Bible not to get drunk.

And what about going to the movie theater? There have been some really good Christian movies come out in the last ten years. Should I not go see them and support those actors and filmmakers who are committed to sharing the gospel in this way? Should I not go see them simply because someone put a guard rail in place for me?

So I’ll stop there, but you get the point. We too must be careful as Christians today that we are not adding any unbiblical rules on top of faith in Jesus Christ as requirements for salvation, as requirements for church membership, as requirements for having full spiritual life.

As Christians we are free from Legalism. And by legalism, I am referring to human rules which limit the freedom we have in Christ. And that is what we see in verses 16 and 17. Freedom from Legalism. And now, in verses 18–19 we see that we are also free from something called Mysticism.

Freedom from Mysticism (vv. 18–19)

Where legalism is “Christ Plus Rules,” mysticism is “Christ Plus Experiences.” Here the issue is not over observing Jewish diets and festivals, but over the false teacher trying to challenge the faith of the Colossians because they did not share in certain super-spiritual, mystical experiences presented as required and normative for those who are spiritually complete.

These mystical experiences involved the worship of angels and having ecstatic visions which were apparently sometimes brought about by limiting your intake of food and water. That is why the false teacher was insisting on asceticism a practice which included the denial of basic physical needs like food (more on asceticism in a few minutes).

Now it is not clear whether or not these people were actually worshipping angels or whether or not they were just so caught up speculating and discussing angels and their ability to ward away the evil powers that supposedly controlled the fate of the Colossians—remember the elemental spirits of the world we talked about a few weeks ago. It is not clear whether they were worshiping angels or just fascinated with them to the point that they were distracted away from God and might as well have been worshipping them. Either way, Paul’s point is that this false teaching was giving more attention to angels than they deserved.

A modern day corollary to this might be the way we have seen people get caught up in discussions about the “end times” to the point that they are no good for anything else. This has died down some in recent years, but there was a time, and there are still some today who get so caught up in that stuff that it is all they can think about. It is all they study. And I am not saying that stuff is not important at some level. But if Jesus wanted us to know for sure, I am convinced he would have said it more clearly. Remember, Jesus himself said, that even he did not not know the day or hour of his return (Matthew 24:36) and you expect me to argue about it? I don’t think so.

Another thing that is common today, especially among younger folks it seems, is to get caught up in useless debates about varying theological systems. The whole Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate. It occupies so much time for some people that you wonder if they are worshiping a theologian who has been dead for hundreds of years or if they are worshipping the risen Christ.

The fact is that sometimes Satan will use good things, like Angels and talk of the Bible to distract us from the worship of God. He will even escalate these talks to a point that churches split and the mission of the church is hindered. We must always remember our real mission is not to get people to believe a certain way about the end times or some certain theological system, but to believe in Jesus Christ.

So whether the false teaching was actually encouraging its adherents to really worship angels or not, we are not sure, but we are sure that angels were being given too much attention by the false teaching.

And we also see here that the false teacher is making claims about visions he had experienced, possibly as a part of his initiation into this select group of people who are claiming to be much more spiritually advanced than the rest of the Colossians. And the implication is, “Since I have had these visions and you have not, you need to listen to me. I can tell you how to have them too and how to become a part of this special group of super-spiritual people.” In other words, “If you are not having visions like these then there is something lacking in your faith.”

Have you ever been told something like that? Years ago Lara and I were a part of a church where at one point if you showed too much emotion during the singing portion of the worship service, you were suspect. There must be something wrong with you. Either you were one of those crazy loon type Christians or you were just trying to get attention. Then all of a sudden, one day the pastor must of had his own vision. And part of that vision must have included the need for the congregation to be more animated during worship. Which was fine. But it got to the point, and I am not exaggerating, where if you weren’t raising your hands and shouting and clapping during the singing of songs, he was convinced there was something wrong with your faith. And he would say so during the service. It was very discouraging.

So what is the point here about mysticism? Well first of all, I am not going to say that people do not have visions today. I am not going to say that God can’t speak to people in dreams or in any other way he wants. But the place God definitely speaks to us is in his written Word, in the Bible. If you come to me and tell me that God told you to tell me something, I am going to tell you, to tell him, to tell me. Anything you believe you have heard from God, you must validate it with Scripture. And always remember that God is never going to tell you to do anything that the Bible says you should not do. PERIOD. God’s Word Abides Forever. What you think you heard from God, must be validated with Scripture. And if what you believe God told you applies to other people as well, he is fully able to tell other people without you helping out. We must remember that God has revealed to us everything we NEED to know in the pages of the Bible. Let’s start searching there first before we start looking for supernatural signs and visions.

This does bring to mind a funny story. You have probably heard it before, but it makes a good point.

There was a young farmer standing in his field one day and he looks up at the clouds and notices something strange. He rubs his eyes and looks again and sure enough, the clouds are forming the letters G-P-C. He thinks about that for a minute and becomes convinced that this is a call from God. He is certain that the letters G-P-C mean “Go Preach Christ!”

The young man runs excitedly from the field to his church where he bursts into the pastor’s office who is meeting with a deacon. The young farmer relays the story to them and insists that he has been called to preach the gospel. Not wanting to stifle the young man’s desire, the pastor and the deacon agree to let him preach that Sunday.

Well that Sunday the sermon was bad. It was almost incoherent. And the only thing that would have made it worse would have been if it would have lasted any longer. But when it finally ends, the deacon who was present with the pastor that day leans over to the pastor and whispers, “Seems to me the clouds were saying ‘Go Plant Corn.’”

Now the point to that story is we have to be careful when we believe God is speaking to us. But the bigger point from this section of the passage is that we should not require certain super-spiritual, mystical experiences as an indicator of genuine faith.

And before we move on, notice what Paul says about this particular false teacher who was claiming to have these visions along with other super-spiritual experiences. Paul says at the end of verse 18, that he is puffed up without reason (something so common for people who believe they have the “key” that unlocks everything). And in verse 19, we also see that he has either lost connection from Jesus Christ or never had it in the first place. And we know that there can be nothing beneficial for the church coming from a man who is no longer attached to Christ. We see in verse 19 that it is in being attached to Christ that the church finds its nourishment and grows with a growth that is from God. And that is a very important statement. When the church grows, it is always a growth that is from God. It is not the preacher, it is not the programs, it is not clever marketing. God brings about the growth.

But before we move to the last point this morning, let me summarize what has been said so far. The true test of genuine faith, and the true test of being part of God’s people has nothing to do with obeying rules and regulations or experiencing super-spiritual encounters. The true test of faith is whether one has been buried with Christ and raised with Christ. All this other stuff is nothing but a distraction. And Paul is telling the Colossians to ignore it.

And this includes what we see in the last few verses from our passage. These verses describe our Freedom from Asceticism.

Freedom from Asceticism (vv. 20–23)

Now Asceticism is a big fancy word. I use it simply because there is not another single word that captures its full meaning. The well-known preacher Alistair Begg, defines Asceticism like this:

The systematic, severe self-denial of normal bodily pleasures as a means to obtaining a holy life.

The problem with Asceticism is the belief that we have the ability to make ourselves holy through self-denial and, in severe cases, self torture and mutilation. And I know this kind of behavior sounds bizarre to you today, but there was a time in the history of the church where asceticism was something practiced by the spiritual elite. And you would be shocked if I told you some of the things they did to try and curb their sinful desires.

But the problem with Asceticism is that you can’t make yourself more holy by punishing your body with a systematic routine of self-denial. This is what many of the medieval monks did. They locked themselves up in monasteries where they would be able to more easily avoid the temptations of the world. And when they were tempted they punished themselves physically. But friends, the simple avoidance of temptations does nothing to change who we are inside. That is why we see Paul mocking the mantra of these false teachers who were saying, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.”

Paul knows that avoidance does not change the heart nor does the food a person eats have any bearing on his or her spiritual life. We have already talked about that. Only the Holy Spirit can change our desires. And it is a process. And it is perhaps best accomplished, not through avoidance, but through encountering the normal temptations of life.

Now once again, please don’t leave here and say, “Well the preacher said I should not avoid that sinful activity that keeps bringing me down, but that I should just immerse myself in it.” That is not what I am saying. There are some things that do need to be flat out avoided. And each of us probably has certain weak spots that we do not need to toy with at all. But what I am saying, is that hiding yourself in your closet because you have a problem with lust or envy when you go out into the world is not going to do away with your problem of lust or envy. It is going to mask that problem at best. Only the Holy Spirit can take it away from you. But one thing is for certain, self-denial alone is not going to do away with those desires.

So notice what Paul says here in these last four verses. This is right in line with where we have been.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20–23 ESV)

Brothers and sisters, do not forget you have died with Christ. And since you have died with Christ you have no need to go around as if you were still caught up in the ways of the world. Do not go around as if the only solution you have to controlling your sinful desires is to obey the world’s advice: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not Touch.” Brothers and sisters, you have died with Christ. You have been raised as a new person who is no longer claimed by sin. Brothers and sisters, you are claimed by Christ.

And though the world’s suggestions may appear to have some wisdom because they are touted by a popular talk show host or celebrity, remember that Christ is the only one who can do anything about curbing the sinful desires which cause you so many problems. That is not to say you don’t have a role to play in the process of controlling and killing the sin in your life, but make sure you are doing it in a biblical way instead of man-made way.

Conclusion

Stick with what you know. Stick with what you have believed in. Don’t look for something bigger and better. Don’t be lured into believing that your faith is lacking because you are not obeying human rules, mystical experiences, or participating in ascetic practices of self improvement. All of these are hallmarks of man-made religions. Jesus has set us free from that type of religion. You have all you need in Jesus Christ.

Do not reject what Christ offers for a man-made system of rules, regulations, activities, experiences, rituals, and practices that supposedly lead man to God. Remind yourself that Christianity does not require you to make your own way to God, but that Christianity is the good news about God coming to us and making a way for us to come to him. Don’t believe the lie that you can make yourself right with God through keeping a list of rules. Don’t believe the lie that super-spiritual experiences are necessary for spiritual wholeness. Don’t believe the lie that you can purge your own sin away through ascetic practices.

Christ has freed you from that type of religion. Christ has freed you to leave all of those things behind and place your faith in him alone to reconcile you to God. In Christ alone you have been given spiritual wholeness. And in Christ alone you will be molded into the person he wants you to be. That friends is not a religion, it is a new life.