Don't Give In

Colossians 2:16–23, 

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 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, 19 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. 20 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— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 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.

So it was around the year 62, somewhere within the confines of his imprisonment in Rome, when the apostle Paul pulled out some parchment and wrote this letter to the Colossians. And he wrote this letter because he wants something so badly for the Colossians, and for you and me, and he tells us what that is in Colossians 1:28. He says there in verse 28, talking about his ministry, he says: “[Christ] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, in order that we might present everyone mature in Christ.” 

So what Paul wants for the Colossians, and for you and me — what he wants for everyone — is for us to be mature in Christ. And he wants it so badly that he says here that this is what his ministry is all about. This is why he does what he does. This is why he preaches and teaches and writes and encourages and warns and so forth — he wants you and me to be mature in Christ. Which means: he wants our lives to be centered on Jesus. 

He wants our faith in Jesus to be firm, as he says in Chapter 2, verse 5. Or, as he puts it in verse 6, he wants us to walk/to behave/to lead our lives in Jesus. 

He wants us to be rooted and built up in Jesus. 

He wants us to be established in the truth of Jesus. 

He wants Jesus to be Jesus in our lives. And that means that everything about our lives is centered on Jesus. And Paul wants that to be the case for all of us. He wants that for you. 

Paul Wants This for You

And before we move on in the passage, I just want to be clear that Paul really does want this for you, whoever you are. Back in verse 28 of Chapter 1, if you look there you’ll see that Paul says “everyone” three times. He is emphasizes it. He really means everyone. He wants Jesus to be Jesus not just for a little group of people over here, or for a certain kind of personality over there — but he wants Jesus to be the center of everyone’s life. 

And so, if you’re here and maybe you don’t believe in Jesus yet, know that Paul wants this for you. And if you’re here and you’ve believed in Jesus for 50 years, know that Paul wants this for you. Whoever you are, Paul wants this for you. The apostle Paul wants everyone to be mature in Christ — he wants all of us to center our lives on Jesus. 

Centered on Something

And on one level, the fact that Paul wants that for us is audacious of him. The apostle Paul, who wrote this letter, would say to you straight up — whoever you are, wherever you’re coming from — he’d look right at you and he’d say, “Hey, I want you to center your entire life on Jesus.” And if we’re hearing him rightly, that would probably bother us a little, and we might think: How dare this guy speak so candidly to me about my life? 

But, see, here’s the thing: the reason that Paul would speak so candidly, and the reason he’d be speak so candidly to everyone, is because he knows that everyone is already centering their lives on something. Everyone of us who came into this room this morning came into this room centering our lives on something; and everyone of us who leaves this room today will walk out of here centering our lives on something; and Paul would just say, “Hey, I want that to be Jesus.” I want you to center your life on Jesus. 

Getting to Verses 16–23

And this gets at, I think, the theme of what’s happening in this passage. In a similar way that it is with us, the Colossians here in the First Century world were stuck in the middle of several different things competing for their worship and devotion. And Paul is telling the Colossians in chapter 2 not to give in to those things. He says this in both positive and negative ways. In the positive, he says “center your life on Jesus” (walk in him, be rooted and built up in him). And then the negative he says, “Don’t center your life on anything else” — which is what he says in verses 4 and 8. 

Notice 2:4, Paul says, “I say this [all this about Jesus] in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.” This is a negative statement — I don’t want you to be deluded; I don’t want you to be fooled into centering your lives on something other than Jesus. 

And then in 2:8, right after he tells us in verses 6–7 to center our lives on Jesus, he says it again in the negative. He says: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” 

So in other words, in the positive he says, “Center your lives on Jesus.” And in the negative he says, “Don’t give in to anything other than Jesus that wants you to center you life on it.”

This really is the main theme of chapter 2. It’s “Center your life on Jesus; don’t center your life on anything else.” And it’s this main theme that leads to the specifics mentioned in verses 16–23. And I think these verses here are really just a section of implications from this theme. 

And the plan for the rest of this sermon is to just look at two things in these implications — just two things and we’re done. I’m going to just say them practically now, and then I’ll explain more. So here are the two things . . .

  1. Whatever it is other than Jesus that you reject as the center of your life, it will keep talking. 
  2. The way to silence the talking is to look at the cross.

Let’s look first at verses 16–19.

Verses 16–19

Notice the two negative statements that Paul makes here. He says in verse 16, “Let no one pass judgment on you;” and then in verse 18 he says, “Let no one disqualify you.” And he follows each of these statements with some specific things, and it’s all connected to the passage before it because he begins verse 16 with “therefore.” So in order to make sense of what he’s saying we need to understand how all this fits together. It all starts with the basic situation that the Colossians found themselves in, which had to do with the religion they had rejected. 

So Colossae was right in the middle of modern-day Turkey, and back in the First Century, the Colossians were Gentiles living under Roman rule, and they would have had a very complicated religious background. As was typical for Gentiles in that day, the Colossians would have venerated several different gods and goddesses. They would have been keenly aware, superstitious even, about the spiritual realm that exists in the world. I think that’s what Paul is talking about when he says “elemental spirits” in verse 8 and verse 20. 

See verse 8 again: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Pastor Joe talked a little about these elemental spirits last Sunday, and he and I have talked more about it this past week, and well, I think that what Paul refers to here as the “elemental spirits” is the pagan spiritual realm that the Colossians would have understood — and that they rejected when they believed the gospel of Jesus. 

They used to be superstitious pagans who lived their lives under the elemental spirits. They used to center their lives on that, on superstition and silly pagan deities, but when they heard the gospel of Jesus, they embraced him by faith. They rejected the elemental spirits of the world and instead they centered their lives on Jesus.

But, their situation gets more complicated, because although these former pagans had become Christians, it wasn’t long before a different kind of teaching and religion began to make its way into the church. There are a few ideas as to what this teaching actually was. We see it referred to several times in this passage, and I’m persuaded — after looking closely and reading other scholars — I’m persuaded that this teaching is actually Judaism, which said that you had to keep the Law of Moses. You had to keep Jewish law. So get this . . .

So the Colossians have rejected the “elemental spirits” as the center of their lives, and instead they have made Jesus the center of their lives, but then comes Judaism which tries to get them to make Jewish law the center of their lives. And Paul is writing to them, urging them not to do that. And the way that Paul makes his case is ironic. Because he says that the Jewish law is actually in the same category as the “elemental spirits” of their pagan background. It goes like this:

  • The Colossians had been pagans, controlled by the elemental spirits. 
  • Then they believed the good news of Jesus and became Christians.
  • But then Judaism steps in and tried to promote itself as actually a more advanced religion than Christianity. Judaism came in and said, No, actually, you need to keep all these laws. 

Judaism was trying to get the Colossians to use Christianity as a stepping stone into Judaism — it was saying you need to go from paganism to Christianity to Judaism. And Paul is saying, no, no, no! Actually, to go from Christianity to Judaism is not to advance, but it’s to go backwards. To accept Judaism and its laws is actually to go backwards to the same elemental spirits that used to control you!

They’re the same, Paul says. Paganism and Judaism are basically the same, and the way Paul says this is a little tongue and cheek. 

Notice verse 8 again when he says: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition…” He is talking about the Jewish law here. Hellenistic Judaism, in order to appeal to Greeks, would have referred to itself as a philosophy. I think that’s why he says that here. And by “human tradition” he means the strict Pharisaism and law-observance that was being promoted. So Paul is talking about Judaism in verse 8, and then look what he says about it at the end of verse 8. He says: “according to the elemental spirits of the world.” 

So hear the way he is saying it. Paul is saying: “Don’t give in to Judaism, you know, paganism.” [You hear that?] What he’s doing here is a big deal. He puts Judaism and paganism both in the same category (he does the same thing in verse 20). He refers to them both as “elemental spirits.” And the reason he does this, the reason they’re the same, he says in verse 8 is because they both are “not according to Christ.” Neither of them are about Jesus.

And because paganism and Judaism are both something other than Jesus, Paul says to reject them as the center of your life. He says: Colossians, look, you’ve already rejected the elemental spirits as the center of your life, and well, Judaism is just like it. So do not give in! Do not go backwards!

Don’t Let It Get to You

But, we also need to know — and this is getting to why Paul says verses 16 and 18 — we need to know that whatever it is other than Jesus that you reject as the center of your life, it will keep talking. Paul gets really practical in these verses.

He says in verse 16, “Let no one pass judgment on you.” And he says in verse 18, “Let no one disqualify you.” And the reason he says this is because people were passing judgment on these Christians, and people were trying to disqualify them. And it had to do with them rejecting the Jewish law. 

Because they rejected Jewish law, because they were refusing to give in, there were some of these Jewish teachers who told them, “Well, then, you’re not really loved by God.” They told them: “Since you don’t keep these laws you’re not really part of God’s people.” They tried to say that the Colossians’ rejection of the Jewish law actually disqualified them. And Paul is saying not to listen to that. Don’t let them pass judgment. Don’t let them disqualify you. Paul is telling the Colossians not to let it get to them — don’t let what these false teachers are saying get to you.

And the part that really fascinates me is that Paul has to say this.

And the reason he has to say this is because there will always be these little voices in our lives that try to tell us what we’re missing out on. Whatever you reject as the center of your life, it will keep talking to you. It will keep trying to tell you what you’ve given up and what you’re missing out on. In the Colossians’ case it was the Jewish law telling them that they’re missing out on God’s love, but we all have something telling us that. We all have these little voices telling us that if we really want God’s love, that if we really want his favor, if we really want that thing that we’ve been praying for, then we need to do more. 

See, I have rejected spiritual performance and law-keeping as the center of my life. I used to think that was the way to make God like me. But then, by his mercy, I rejected that, and I believed the gospel, and I have centered my life on Jesus — and I know that the only way I am loved by God is because of his grace to me in Jesus. That’s where I live. That’s the good news. My life is centered on that. But then, sometimes more often than not, I start to hear talking. [Don’t let this worry you. You hear it too.] I start to hear talking, and the spiritual performance I’ve rejected starts to say, “Your borderline, Parnell. If you really want in, if you really want God’s blessing and favor, here a few things you need to do.”

See, whatever it is that we’ve rejected as the center of our lives, it will keep talking, and sometimes the talking might sound like, “Hey, you’re missing out on all the fun.” “You’re wasting your time.” “Your family doesn’t respect you.” “You’re making a mistake.” “Your colleagues think you’re a joke.” And on and on the talking goes, and every time, along with its talking, it says, “Here, do this. Follow these rules. Do these things. Orient your world around these guidelines so you don’t miss out.”

For Judaism, in verse 16, it was: don’t eat this, don’t drink that. Observe this festival and holiday. Don’t go shopping on Saturday. Jewish law tried to sound more advanced and profound than faith in Jesus, but Paul, in verse 17 calls it a shadow. He says it’s bush league. Then in verse 18 he gets pejorative — he says, this is my paraphrase: 

Don’t let the talking get to you, these rules that insist on asceticism, are you kidding me? They make such a big deal of the law that they are practically worshiping angels, they’re worshiping mediators. They are so fixated on law that they go on and on about it, and they are so proud of themselves.

Don’t let the talking get to you, Paul says. 

But how? This is our second and last point. . . .

The way to silence the talking is to look at the cross.

That’s in verse 20. 

Paul says, “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.” Another way to say “if” — in both verse 20 and chapter 3, verse 1 — is to say “since.” Paul isn’t setting this up as a conditional choice; he’s not saying “if you want this then do that.” He’s saying “because of this it means that.” The force of the sentence goes like: “Since with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, don’t live like you’re still alive to it by doing all this law-keeping.” 

And here we see again another example of where Paul puts Judaism and paganism in the same category. He mentions the elemental spirits of the world, and then he mentions these regulations, these Jewish rules. He says: Since you rejected paganism don’t give in to Judaism. 

But the way he says it is stronger. He says, “Since you died with Christ to paganism, to the elemental spirits, to Jewish law — since you died to those things other than Jesus that want you to center your life on them, don’t center your life on them.” You died to them. They are no more. They’re done. They’re dead. 

And with that, when Paul talks about death, I think he is referring back to verses 14 and 15 about when Jesus died on the cross. Which means, Paul’s final appeal for us to not give in to Judaism, the way that we don’t let the talking get to us, is that we look at the cross — because the cross was the end of all those things other than Jesus that try to control us.

Verse 14 mentions two phrases: “record of debt” and “legal demands.” I think, in this context, Paul is talking about Jewish law and the guilt (the debt) we feel because we don’t measure up. The Jewish law condemns us. And I think, alongside this debt and these demands go anything else in our lives that has the same condemning effect on us. Whatever it is other than Jesus that we’ve rejected, but that keeps talking, whatever that is, Paul would say that it was nailed to the cross when Jesus died.

And Paul doesn’t mean it was nailed to the cross in some abstract way. He’s trying to give us an image. He wants us to look at the cross, and to imagine the cross in our minds. And when we look at the cross, he wants to see, nailed to the top of the cross over the head of Jesus, he wants us to see a big cardboard sign that says “Jewish law.” Paul wants us to see that and he wants us to know that when Jesus was being crucified, the debt we owe and the demands of that law, they were being crucified too, and in fact, when Jesus died we were with Jesus, and as he died we died to the law’s control in our lives.

But it’s not just the Jewish law, it’s whatever those things are that we’ve rejected as the center of our lives. Whatever those things are — Paul wants us to look at the cross — and whatever those things are, whatever it is that we’ve been saved from, Paul wants us to see them written on a sign and nailed to the cross of Jesus. And he wants us to know they do not control us anymore. We have died to them.

And this can get really practical. When we look to the cross and we see that sign nailed to the cross, hanging over Jesus, we see on that sign all the empty promises of pleasure that we’ve rejected. We see on that sign, nailed to the cross, all of our guilt and our failures. We see our spiritual performance. We see the approval of man. We see our craving to be accepted. We see our flaws and our addictions and our worries, and all of their demands. We see it all, and we see it all nailed to the cross with Jesus, and that’s when we know, how we know, it’s done. It’s dead. It’s finished.

I’ve rejected those things, and it’s over. So I’ll keep centering my life on Jesus, not on anything else. 

And that’s what the apostle Paul wants for you. And that’s what I want for you. That’s what I want for you and for me, and that’s what this Table is about. 

The Table

In just a few moments we’re going to pass the bread and the wine, which represents the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. This is a meal for those who have centered their lives on Jesus, it’s for those who have embraced him by faith. And when we share this meal together we are remembering the death of Jesus, and also we remember all those things that we’ve rejected, that were nailed to the cross with him. 

And one thing I want us to do today, as we hold the bread and cup, I want us to look at the cross, to imagine the cross in our minds, and I want us to see on that cardboard sign, nailed to the cross, I want us to see all that we’ve rejected as the center of our lives. . . .