Colossians 2.8-23: Dealing with the Threat of False Teaching (Part 2)

Paul has just finished recounting all the benefits and the “fullness” that believers share in Christ (vv. 9-15).  And this forms the grounds (hence, “therefore”) for his critique against the false teachers’ convictions, attitudes, and practices.

2.16 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 people also go into great detail about what they have seen, and their unspiritual minds puff them up with idle notions. 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.

20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (TNIV).

The Identity of the False Teachers:

This section proves the most helpful in reconstructing the historical situation.  James Dunn demonstrates, pretty convincingly, that the “false teaching” (as we have labeled it) is predominantly Jewish in character.  For example, the threefold reference, “a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (2.16) most likely refers to Jewish “holy days” (e.g., 1 Chron 23.31) (Moo, 220).  The concerns for tradition and purity rules (2.8, 16, 20-23) are best explained in light of Jewish preoccupation with following Torah and commitment to maintain their distinctive identity as a “clean” and “holy nation,” i.e., a people set apart (i.e., distinct, separate) by God.

Though, the references to things like worship of angels and entering into visions may suggest the presence of other folk or mystic religions and/or other cultural influences. Perhaps it is best then to say that the false teachers, while coming from Jewish origin, have also been influenced by the culture that surrounds them—assimilated Jews, if you will (for more on this see the first post on the background of the letter).

So what’s the problem with the false teachers?

For one, it seems that they view themselves as spiritually superior to other members of the community.  In fact, they pass judgment on others based on what they eat and drink, and on their observance of religious days (2.16).

This is best explained by what Dunn refers to as “badge keeping.”  You see, remaining distinct as God’s covenantal people was highly valued and well embedded in Judaism.  The issue for first century Jews, who had placed their faith in Christ became, how do we maintain our Jewish identity and still remain set apart from the heathen nations.  This was primarily done through the markers or “badges” of circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath keeping.

Paul argues, however, that all such requirements concerning food laws, observance of holy days, and other man made traditions (16, 2.20-22) belong to the old age, which has come to pass.  The reality belongs to Christ in the new age (2.17).  This is also another way to say that Christ has fulfilled all requirements that pertain to the Old Testament.  Faithfulness here belongs to living and growing in him.  In Romans 14, a passage very similar to this one, Paul declares, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men” (Rom 14.17-18).

Paul also tells us that the false teachers delight in humility and worship of angels (2.18), likely revealing some pride in the way in which they were worshipping.  And they were, again, condemning (TNIV, “disqualify”) others, it seems, for not following suit.  In the end, their so called humility proves to be arrogance (2.18).

In verse 19 Paul provides a stern warning to the false teachers: they have “lost connection with the head.”  This reveals that the false teachers belong to the community of Colossae.  But in addition to serving as a warning to the false teachers, this verse also functions as a warning to all the believers of Colossae who may have been tempted to join in this form of worship.  The false teachers’ behavior is disruptive to the community’s growth.  They have lost connection with Christ in whom they were to live and grow into; if they persuade others to follow suit, they only hurt the body’s growth in Christ (Col 2.19; 2.6-8; cf. Eph 4.15-16).

We can only make an educated guess as to why the false teachers were worshipping angels and infatuated with visions.  Perhaps they thought that if they prepared themselves appropriately, by following religious rules and regulations, they could call upon the angels to protect them from the celestial beings that were thought to have influence over individuals’ lives.

The problem with this form of worship is that it depends on things outside of Christ.  Recall Col 2.8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”

While some of these disciplines that the false teachers are advocating appear to be good, they lack the ability to absolve the problem of the flesh (2.23).  In other words, the old age still remains.  It is only Christ who can take away our sinful nature (recall 2.11, 13). 

It is for this reason that Paul invites his readers to consider whether or not they have died with Christ (2.20).  If you’ve died with Christ, these things are no longer of value to you.  Paul is reinforcing his point made in the previous section: it is our identification with Christ through faith that gives us victory and spiritual fullness (2.9-15; burial of v. 12 is equivalent to death here).

We’ve died to the old age; it’s about time we start looking towards the new (chapter 3).

Application:

  • We must not consider ourselves superior or more spiritually enlightened because of the spiritual disciplines we practice.  Spiritual fulfillment is found in Christ, not in specific procedures of worship.
  • We must not find our worth, value, answers, or spiritual fulfillment in anything outside of Christ.  To do so and lead others into this behavior is to disconnect ourselves from Christ and compromise the integrity and growth of the church body (2.19).  It is in him that we may find worth, value, and spiritual fulfillment (2.9-15).
  • The answer to the problem of sin is found in Christ alone.  Only through faith in Christ can we truly deal with our own sin.  While it’s true that overcoming sin and its effects is oftentimes a long and difficult process, Colossians assures us that we have victory in Christ now and share in his authority over all things.  If we continue to walk with Christ, he will be faithful to redeem us.
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