Summary: Keeping religious rules and observing religious rituals in order to be close to God are only a shadow of the "real thing," a relationship with Him through Jesus.
In the time of the early church, there were people in the churches who were teaching that once you became a Christian, you still had to obey the Jewish regulations and rituals to be religiously correct. That kind of false teaching still exists in the 21st century. In this series I’m calling “Grace-Robbers” I want to warn you about the dangers of dead, dull, legalism.
Let’s read what the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write about the problem of Grace-robbers:
Colossians 2:16-18. “Therefore [remember, never start at a “therefore” in the Bible–glance back to verse 14 to review that truth that when Jesus died on the cross, God took away all the Old Testament rules and regulations and nailed them to the cross] 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. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
When I was growing up in L.A. (Lower Alabama) we usually had four or five dogs and cats to claim as our pets. By virtue of being the oldest child, my older sister, Judy, demanded the right to name all our pets. (First-born siblings can be control-freaks as the rest of us know). We had a dog that was part German Shepherd which Judy named Rex. While, Rex was a ferocious looking dog, he was a big chicken at heart. He was scared of everything. None of our pets ever came inside; they were “yard pets.” But once when it thundered, Rex was so frightened he broke through the screen door and came in and hid under the table!
His bark wasn’t worst than his bite, because he seldom barked...and he never bit. However, there was on thing that could make Rex bark. Sometimes when a bird or a flock of birds flew over on a sunny day, Rex often chased their shadows on the ground. I can recall watching as one bird flew around in a circle with Rex chasing the circling shadow on the ground, barking the whole time. Poor, dumb, bird-brained Rex–he never figured out the shadow wasn’t real.
Sadly, there are many well-meaning Christians who are doing the same thing. They are chasing shadows: They are still trying to please God by keeping religious rules and observing religious rituals. In this message, I want to examine some of the substitutes for grace, and then talk about the differences between legalism-based churches and grace-based churches.
I. CHEAP SUBSTITUTES FOR GRACE
Do you know what a shadow is? The scientific answer is: “An area that is not or is only partially irradiated or illuminated because of the interception of radiation by an opaque object between the area and the source of radiation.” To put it simply, shadows are merely a one-dimensional outline of the real thing. When you see a person’s shadow around the corner in the late afternoon, you know that person is coming soon behind it. You don’t greet the shadow, you greet the person. Those who are chasing spiritual shadows are still trying to please God by focusing on the shadow, not the real thing. Keeping religious rules and observing religious rituals in order to be close to God are only a shadow of the “real thing,” a relationship with Him through Jesus. Jesus is the substance of grace and legalism chases the shadowy substitutes for grace. In this passage we find three legalistic substitutes for grace.
(1) Dietary Regulations
Our text says, “do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink.” The Old Testament contains a long list of foods that were clean and unclean. For instance, the Jews could eat beef, but they were forbidden to eat pork. They could eat fish with scales, but not fish without scales, like catfish. To this day, Orthodox Jews only eat Kosher foods. (the word “kosher comes from the Hebrew word for “fitting” or “proper”) There are some groups that call themselves Christians still observing these Old Testament dietary regulations. They would tell you if you’re eating bacon or ham, you can’t be right with God. But the Bible clearly states these regulations are no longer in effect.
But the legalistic attitude about food and drink can go beyond the Old Testament. There are plenty of people around today who will try to condemn you based upon what you consume. A few days ago, while dining in a friend’s home, we sat at a table with a young man named Seamus from Ireland. He had a delightful Irish accent, and as he answered our questions, we were all enjoying the Irish lilt of his voice. We asked him about his family and he said, “One of me brothers is an engineer, and another brother is taking care of the family farm, and my sister is a vegetarian kook. I was on the verge of blurting, “Yeah, all those vegetarians are kooks!” But in the instant before I stuck my foot in my mouth, I realized he meant “vegetarian COOK.” I wasn’t the only one thought he said “kook” so all we got a big laugh out of it. Later I reminded myself that it’s wrong for me to judge someone just because they are a vegetarian–and vegetarians shouldn’t condemn those of who are carnivorous. In Matthew 15, Jesus made it clear it’s not what goes into the mouth and stomach of a person that defiles him. It is what comes out of the heart that defiles a person. These Old Testament dietary rules were nailed to the cross and we don’t have to obey them anymore. It’s not about the kind of food or drink you consume. It’s not even about eating and drinking the bread and wine for Communion. The Christian life is knowing Jesus.