Summary: God’s grace will free us from legalism so that we can freely follow Christ to the glory of God.
Please turn in your Bibles to Colossians chapter 2. We’ll read verses 16-23 this morning as we continue in the letter to the Colossians.
READ COLOSSIANS 2:16-23 / PRAY
At the beginning of this chapter, Paul said that he had a great struggle for the Colossian believers (and for us). His struggle, his intense labor on their behalf and ours was that we may reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:2-3).
In other words, he would have us know that everything we need for fullness of life is in the person of Jesus Christ. Because the whole fullness of God is in Christ (vs. 9), and we are joined to Christ, therefore we need look nowhere else outside of Christ for deep satisfaction in an intimate relationship with God. In Christ we have God’s forgiveness & acceptance, God’s favor, & God’s provision for our needs & for our eternal happiness.
But it requires struggle to reach and maintain this assurance because these are realities that we can’t see, and assurance requires our ongoing meditation on and pursuit of Christ. Without doing that, it’s easy to put our hope for God’s acceptance and our hope for fullness of life in something we can see, or something we can do. Sincere believers who are struggling with doubt and discouragement can be attracted to a message that says, “I’ve found the secret. I know how you can really get into God’s highest favor. I know how you can get into the inner circle with God.”
That’s an attractive message. But when that ‘secret’ puts our hope in what we can do, rather than in Christ, it’s a deadly lie and a denial of the gospel.
Paul is addressing a message like that in this text. There was a person trying to sway the Colossian believers about how to relate to God and find fullness of life, but it was not according to Christ. His teaching can be described with one word: legalism.
Legalism is the belief that God’s favor can be earned by what we do. It’s the belief that God’s approval and acceptance depend on one’s own power to do what’s pleasing to him. And when a fallen sinner like me thinks that way, it usually bears a particular fruit. That is the creation of regulations for ourselves and for others that go beyond the teaching of Scripture and come from our own minds. Paul deals with legalism and its fruit in this passage.
And through his teaching, we are going to be helped to identify legalism and its fruit. And by God’s grace this will help us to retain our freedom in Christ, and our freedom to follow Christ to the glory of God.
We’re going to go about this in 4 parts. First, we’ll describe the teaching that was disturbing the Colossian church and show that it is legalism at its root. Then we’ll make 3 observations about legalism, and make application along the way. Let’s start with…
THE FALSE TEACHING
There are three main parts to the message that someone was trying to persuade the Colossian believers to accept.
The first and major part of it is what is described as asceticism. Verse 18 says they insist on asceticism. Asceticism is the belief that self-denial is inherently more spiritual than enjoying the things of the world. It’s a belief that abstinence is inherently better than participation, that if moderation is good, then abstinence is even better. And in the text the primary examples regard the use of food and drink.
That’s what’s behind the regulations of verse 21. The teachers were saying, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” In other words “Don’t handle this item here! Don’t taste that food or drink there! In fact, don’t even touch these things. Don’t even go near them.” It’s all about complete abstinence of certain kinds of food and drink or other created things as harmful to your spirituality.
The Greek word translated asceticism is actually the word for humility or to embrace lowliness. That would be a good thing in most circumstances. But since Paul speaks of it negatively here, we are to understand it to be a false humility, a show of pious devotion to God in self-denial and self-sacrifice that is thought to make you more spiritual than other people who don’t do the same.
This is the first part of the message of the false teachers—asceticism, seeking superior spirituality through strict self-denial. The second part is this, the observance of Old Testament holy days. In verse 16 it says the teachers pass judgment on you …with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. This is a reference to yearly, monthly and weekly holy days on Israel’s calendar—things like the Passover, or the Feast of Booths. You see almost the same wording in 2 Chronicles 23:31, which says that the sons of Levi were to offer burnt offerings …to the LORD on Sabbaths, new moons, and feast days, according to the number required of them, regularly before the LORD.