Colossians 2:16-23

© Rosemary Bardsley 2014

Colossians 2:16

Therefore …’ because of all that Paul has already said about who Jesus is and what Jesus did on the cross …

‘do not let anyone judge you …’ Paul is not speaking here of not discerning between right and wrong, good and bad, behaviour. All of his letters contain clear instructions to believers about the kind of behaviour and attitudes they should put off or put on. Discernment is necessary. Recognition of wrong and right behaviour is necessary. But what he is speaking of here is not that. He is talking of that judgement which divides people into those who are saved and those who are not saved, on the basis of behaviour. It looks at whether or not a person keeps certain rules, regulations or rituals. It accuses and condemns those who don’t meet the required criteria. It deems them unacceptable to God on the basis of their religious performance.

Because of the once-for-all, complete salvation accomplished by God in the death of Jesus Christ our substitute, all such judgement/condemnation is inappropriate. All the judgement/condemnation due to our sins fell on Christ. There is none left for those who are in Christ to bear. So Paul puts the onus back on the believer: don’t you let anyone judge you in such a way as to put you back under condemnation.

‘by what you eat or drink …’ This was one criteria by which the false teachers judged the Colossian believers. Whether it was a question of meeting certain fasting expectations [as the Pharisees judged Jesus’ disciples], or a question of eating ‘ritually unclean’ foods [as in Leviticus], or eating with a Gentile or a Samaritan [see example in Galatians 2:11-13], or the eating of meat offered to idols [a question addressed by Paul in his letters to the believers in Rome and Corinth], we are not told. Regardless of the issue in question, Christians were being judged on this basis.

‘or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath Day’ -  This list refers to the observance of festivals, celebrations and days required by the Law of Moses. There the observance of weekly Sabbath Days, monthly New Moon celebrations, and annual feast days of various kinds was required. In addition to these regular observances the engagement in a wide range of other religious activities was required. In their essential significance all of these were a reminder of God’s sovereign grace by which they existed as his people. Hence, regarding the Sabbath, God said:

‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy’ [Exodus 31:13; also Ezekiel 20:12].

But over the generations, the perception of these observances shifted from that action of God they represented, to the human action of observing the feast day or Sabbath. The observance became viewed as a meritorious human action that attracted God’s acceptance. Instead of being a reminder of God’s blessing already received, they became that by which humans earned God’s blessing.

Now the Judaistic false teachers brought these expectations into the church at Colosse and laid them upon the Christians. As with the rules about food and drink, Paul exhorts the believers not to let anyone sit in judgement on them in relation to whether or not they observe these religious celebrations and day.

In the twenty-first century church we are not normally confronted with these identical judgements – except on occasion, questions about the Sabbath or fasting. Nevertheless, we need to be on guard that our local or denominational church traditions do not hold us under similar judgement.

Colossians 2:17

‘These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ’ – All of the Old Testament rituals and observances, while pointing to the present reality of God’s sovereign grace, at the same time, and more importantly, where prophetic symbols of a far greater ultimate reality: Jesus Christ. He is the one, real ultimate sacrifice from whom all the ritual sacrifices derive their existence. He is the one real Sabbath rest. He is the one real Day of Atonement. He is the one, real New Moon festival. All exist because of him. All borrow their significance from him. All point ahead to him as the one real place where grace and forgiveness are found.  All anticipate and predict his coming and his saving work. To revert to the shadow, the symbol, when one knows the actual reality from which they take their meaning, is unthinkable. [This is the burden of the Letter to the Hebrews, which tells us that all of these things were mere human copies of the real thing, Jesus Christ, whom God showed to Moses.]


Colossians 2:18

‘Do not let anyone … disqualify you for the prize’

The false teachers were characterized by

delighting in false humility
worshipping angels  
going on and on about and preoccupied with their visions
unspiritual minds (minds of the flesh)
excessive (and empty) pride
the mind of the flesh [they are still relating to God on a performance basis].

There was the appearance of humility and spirituality in the false teachers; both were false; yet they tried to impose both on the Colossian believers. In so far as the believers did not display these supposed qualities the false teachers held them to be disqualified, and made them feel disqualified.

Paul has already stated in 1:12 that God ‘has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light’. It is not up to them to qualify themselves. They are already qualified. As Paul stated in 1:22 God ‘presents you holy in his sight, without blemish, and free from accusation’.

So Paul insists: Don’t let anyone disqualify you on the basis of these or similar criteria. The same warning is relevant today as Christians are lured into a mystical, experiential, subjective version of Christianity, and those who fail to conform to this are made to feel that they are missing out on something, or are second-rate Christians.

What Paul is saying here is: don’t let these false teachers - with their reduction of who Jesus is, their exaltation of angels, and their focus on personal mystical human experiences - cut you off from experiencing the joy and peace of the true Gospel.

Colossians 2:19

‘He has lost connection with the Head …’ – [Literally – and not holding the Head]. Here Paul states that it is not the Colossian believers who are disqualified, but rather anyone who teaches and substitutes such man-centred teaching for the true Gospel. Such a person is not holding on to Christ. It is not that these teachers once held onto Christ, then lost connection with him, it is that they are not holding on to him. Rather than depending onto him and depending on him for everything, they are depending on their own efforts. And their teaching is forcing their hearers to depend on their own efforts, as detailed by Paul in verses 16 to 18, and further in verses 20 to 23.

The truth is, says Paul,

It is Christ, the Head, who supports the whole body of believers.
It is Christ, the Head, who holds them all together.
It is Christ, the Head, who is the source of the church’s growth.

The false teachers are completely out of line.

Colossians 2:20-23

Here Paul reminds his readers of what he has taught at length in Chapter 2: the union of the believer with Christ in his death – ‘you died with Christ’. This death, he now says, was ‘to the basic principles of this world’ – that is, the principle of legalism that characterizes all human religions and all false cults: man must merit reward, acceptance with God on the basis of one’s own works. For those who believe in Christ, they have died to this principle. It can no longer touch them. God has circumcised off ‘the body of the flesh’ – their human performance. Christ has rescued them from it. It is irrelevant.

Why then, Paul asks, do you submit to its rules, as though you still belonged to it? Paul is not advocating that believers descend into anarchy and disobey civil law. Nor is he giving believers licence to disobey God’s moral laws. He is sounding a warning against a similar list of imposed religious criteria for acceptance with God as those he listed in 16 to 18:

Rules about food – verse 21.
Rules about worship – verse 23: ‘self-imposed worship’.
False humility – verse 23.
Harsh treatment of the body – verse 23.

These things, he says,

Are temporary.
Are based on human rules and teaching.
Have an appearance of wisdom … but
Lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

As Paul points out in Romans: even the Law does not make us spiritual. All the law can do, all the Law was meant to do, was to make us aware of our sin [Romans 3:19,20] and thus to lead us to the salvation which is found in Jesus Christ [Galatians 3:23-25]. If God’s Law has this limitation, if God’s law was never intended to make us spiritual, how much more are man-man rules and regulations unable to make us right with God, or keep us right with God. They cannot do it.  Only Jesus Christ can do that.

In this section, 2:16-23, Paul has confronted the false teaching head on. He has also challenged the Colossian believers, warning them not to be deceived by this false teaching – not to let it judge them, not to let it make them believe they are disqualified, not to submit to its rules. All such actions are in complete contradiction of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All such teachings are man-made reductions of the Gospel, demonstrating the unbelief of those who promote them.