Can you remember a time when you felt fear – deep, mind numbing, body shaking, thought blinding fear? Perhaps you experienced a terrible thunderstorm, the wind so loud you wondered if the roof on your house would stay on. Maybe you had to drive through a blizzard or a torrential rain storm and you were praying all the while you were on the highway that you wouldn’t crash. Quite possibly you witnessed a fight or were threatened in some way. Perhaps you feared for the life of a loved one and for hours you didn’t know what to do or where to turn.
Being afraid isn’t our favourite place to be and so when we feel like we’re in unsafe situations we look for things to hold onto, things that’ll bring order to the chaos, things that’ll anchor us and give us the assurance that we’ll be safe.
This feeling fearful or unsafe thing isn’t limited to the physical world. We can feel fear, emotionally, socially, and mentally, and every time we feel fearful in those situations we seek safe places – anchors. Sometimes those safe places are good places to be, but often they are not. That’s why some people try to hold on to unhealthy ‘anchors’ such as drugs, abusive relationships, alcoholism, or some other ‘vice’ in a deluded attempt to alleviate a fear in the moment. The problem is that it doesn’t stop the fear. In fact, it only exasperates the fears already being faced.
We Christians may not admit it, but we often do the same thing as it pertains to our walk of faith. There’s a tendency to believe that it’s the extra ‘things’, the rules and regulations in our ‘religiosity’ that we need in order to be safe, to anchor us. So, we set up traditions and rules with a spiritual skin wrapped all over it and then call it religion.
In Colossians, Paul refers to four lies about traditions and regulations that 90% of us Christians admit to having held onto at some point in our faith journey (the other 10% lied about not going there). The thing is that they don’t add a lick to our spiritual identities and most certainly do not make us ever feel sufficiently safe in our eternal futures. Legalistic rules filled with tradition or perceived biblical rules, that end up just becoming cheap substitutes for what should be the goal of our lives as Christians – To glorify God in and through our lives and to enjoy being in his amazing presence forever.
What could be these 4 lies then that Paul speaks to?
Lie # 1 – Legalistic rules and regulations will make you an acceptable Christian
“Therefore let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” – Colossians 2:16
So often we find ourselves worried about what others think, about making sure we look good and that we are doing the right ‘Christian’ (religious) thing. What ends up happening is that we surround ourselves with so many religious safety nets that we can’t see Jesus for the rules. Jesus wasn’t about rules – he was about relationship.
Much too often, we come into the body of Christ and are quickly introduced to something other than the gospel… legalism. Legalism refers to an emphasis on man-made rules and prohibitions as the standard for spirituality. Someone tells you how wrong it is to indulge in certain practices that ‘they’ have deemed unacceptable in the Christian community.
These individuals are not only convinced that these practices are wrong but consider it their duty to judge you as less Christ like because you do them! “Don’t play cards… Don’t watch movies… Don’t drink wine… Don’t get a tattoo…etc.”. As if Jesus isn’t near good enough to have taken care of the law for us. Listen, if you are convicted by the Holy Spirit about some of those things in your life then by all means listen to and obey the Holy Spirit as you’re convicted, but it’s not your or my job to convict others where there is no conviction in their lives about these things or practices…you nor I am the Holy Spirit.
Obviously, there are house rules that we as a community must live by… thou shall not kill (good house rule). Thou shall not commit adultery (another good one). Love each other (a great law to live by). But where there isn’t a direction by the word of God I can’t go around and hold up man-made laws or traditions as though they have the same weight as the word of God. Where one person has liberties in an area with God another may not. We can’t make those demands on others let alone ourselves.
Just look in Romans 8 where we see how Jesus fulfilled the law, both its moral demands and its ceremonial demands. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” – Romans 8:3-4
If keeping the Law could not make us acceptable before we received Christ, why do we think that keeping the law can make us acceptable after we are believers? Or as Paul rhetorically phrased it… “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” – Galatians 3:3
Sadly, many genuine believers are living under some form of a yoke of bondage, thinking if I just do this or do that, I’ll be more acceptable to God. They may not say this overtly but their actions betray them.
The point is that the consumption of food and drink is in itself no basis for judging a person’s acceptability with God or standing in God’s family. To be sure Paul had to deal with the abuse of food and drink; the problem of eating meat offered to idols and the problem of drunkenness (1 Corinthians 8, 11:21; Romans 14). But his approach to these abuses was never to forbid food or drink. It was always to forbid what destroyed God’s temple and injured faith. He taught the principle of love, but did not dictate its application with regulations in matters of food and drink.
Lie # 2 – Legalistic rules and regulations say that Jesus isn’t sufficient
“These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 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.” – Colossians 2:17-18
I recall watching the cartoon version of Peter Pan as a child and being fascinated by the shadow of Peter. It had a life of its own and in many ways, was an independent entity apart from its owner. I remember as an 8-year-old trying endlessly to ‘awaken’ my shadow so that we could enjoy separate adventures – together. Remember I was only 8. It didn’t take me long to discover that In the real world a shadow has no substance, and for that matter has no independent existence. It simply is a proof of the fact that there is a reality somewhere behind it making it happen. It is not solid or real – simply a copy of the real thing. Much like Pepsi is to Coke. No matter how hard I tried to make my shadow ‘real’ it was always going to be lifeless, it was always going to be just a copy. Paul is stressing to us that legalism through rules and regulations are only insufficient “shadows” that do nothing to put us into right relationship with God and most certainly don’t make us safe.
In my wallet you might not find much money but you will find pictures of my kids. I value these photographs and look at them occasionally when I am away from home. But what would you think if I propped up these pictures all over my house or office and talked to them and tried to relate to them? You would think I’d gone a little crazy – and rightly so. But, more than that, I would lose connection with the very people whose pictures I hold. They would end up feeling ignored and our relationship would be damaged and would most likely end.
That is what Paul says is wrong with shadows. If you continue to give the shadow key significance after the real person or thing has been identified, you’ll only end up killing your opportunity to enjoy the real person or thing itself. here’s the point. There are times we put more trust than we think into our rituals or regulations than we do in Jesus. If you don’t believe me then ask yourself… do you feel better about your relationship with God after you read the bible for a week or if you have been attending church every Sunday for three months than when you didn’t read the Word as much or missed church for a few weeks? Or do you feel that God’s depth of love for you is dictated by how well you serve him? Or have you ever said, “Well i’m not really being that good of a Christian” as if you were the one sanctifying you?
I absolutely understand that we learn more about who God is as we read and pray and serve… but we need to do those things out of love & not because they are rules, things we need to do as a ‘good’ christian. What Paul is telling us is that the reality in our faith is Jesus, not other ‘things’ such as rules, regulations or otherwise. It’s him, not the shadow, that journeys with us through life, who comforts us when we need it and gives us the strength to face temptation. But when we forget that, we then are believing that rules & regulations are more sufficient in making us Christlike than Christ himself.
So do we truly believe that Jesus is sufficient? Truth is that God couldn’t love us any more than he already does. Remember that God doesn’t have lots of love to give – He is love and so is an endless reservoir of love. But when we trust more in regulations and those rules we place on ourselves and others… then it means we really don’t believe that God really loves us like he said he does or that Jesus is truly sufficient enough to take care of us… because if we truly believed the truth about him, well then we’d never rely on those shadows again.
Lie # 3 – Legalistic rules and regulations deny the authority of Jesus
“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. – Colossians 2:19
Jesus is to be “the head of the body,” a metaphor that demonstrates the authority of Christ over the church as well as the dependence the church is to place in Christ (Colossians 1:18). That’s what the writer of Hebrews puts so much effort into doing throughout the book of Hebrews. Attempting to show us the superiority and authority of Jesus Christ over and above all of the shadows of the Old Testament. We are not to content ourselves with shadows when we can fill ourselves with the real thing. And “Jesus is ‘the real thing’.
When we die to self and live to make him known, when we can’t help but love our fellow disciples, when we crave the word of God, when we welcome discipline and tribulations in our lives because we know we are being made into the image of Christ, when we seek out fellowship with other believers because we love being with God’s people we can know that as we grow, all our spiritual growth has as its ultimate focus – Jesus.
Avoid the false teachings, the legalistic rules, the empty rituals and the unsatisfying regulations that move us away from Christ, and instead take advantage of the things God has given for growth.
Lie # 4 – Legalistic rules and regulations will make you holy
“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 – ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? 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
The false teachers in Paul’s day practised asceticism, which was a poor attempt at freeing the spirit from the ‘prison’ of the body. The view that the body was evil eventually found its way into the church. In fact, there were many who began to find ways to punish their bodies believing that this was a way to free their spirit from the body. A monk named Anthony, the founder of Christian monasticism, never changed his vest or washed his feet. I’m sure his cell probably smelled like a lot of guys’ dorm rooms. Even Martin Luther, before discovering the truth of justification by faith, nearly wrecked his health through asceticism.
Paul addresses a similar issue in Galatians 4 writing that while we were children, we were held in bondage under the ‘elemental’ things of the world. Elemental is from the Greek meaning “rank” used to speak of basic, foundational things like ABC’s or 123’s. Paul was saying that these rituals of human religion they were engaged in were elemental because they are only human, and could never rise to the level of the divine. But he asks then that now that they’ve come to know God, how in the world could they go back to grade 2 – to the ABC’s? Do they really think that these rituals, holy days, and rules of diet will do it for them? Do they really want to be enslaved all over again?
Legalism only leads us back to unchristian slavery instead of freedom in Christ, and in any event, doesn’t free us from our lusts, at the very best keeps them on a leash which just isn’t good enough. Rules and regulations will not, and cannot make us holy.
The great news is that through our union with Christ, we, the redeemed are set free from man-made rules designed to promote spirituality and holiness.
What are the legalistic rules, regulations & traditions that you or I hold onto while we live out our own faith journey experience? What are those things we need to let go of in order to truly experience freedom in Christ and find safety in our relationship with God? True Christian safety and freedom never comes from restraining desires by rules and regulations, but from the death of evil desires and the springing to life of good desires. And this can only happen as we grow in deep love with Jesus and know him intimately, asking him to fill us with his spirit in order to be empowered to live for him. And as we grow we can know that he will complete the work that he began. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 1:6