Three Errors
Colossians 2:16-23
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:

I. LEGALISM. "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day or a new moon or a sabbath day: which are a shadow of the things to come; but the body is Christ's." There is a detailed reference here to Jewish institutions. Eating (rather than meat) was encompassed with regulations. There was a distinction drawn between clean and unclean animals. Certain parts of animals (the fat, the blood) were not to be eaten. God's rights (firstborn, portions of the priests) were not to be infringed in eating. There was not so much binding down in regard to drinking. Priests were forbidden the use of wine before ministering in the tabernacle; and the Nazarite vow included entire abstinence from the use of wine. The sacred times are classed according to their frequency. There were the three great annual feasts (extending each over a week) of the Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Every month commenced with a celebration. And the weekly sabbath (older than Jewish institutions) had its special services. The false teachers who sought to impose these institutions on the Colossian Christians were Essenes. These went far beyond the Pharisees. They ate no animal food, drank no wine. They would not light a fire, move a vessel, perform the most ordinary functions of life on the sabbath. Everything material was inherently evil and was not to be touched more than was absolutely necessary. The apostle claims, against these teachers, on behalf of the Colossians, that they were not to be judged in respect of their nonobservance of Jewish institutions. And the ground on which he does so is this. These institutions (in their purity, and not as exaggerated in Essenism)were only shadows of the things to come. They were connected with what was substantial (and therefore were channels of blessing so long as they lasted), but Christians, having got the substantial in Christ, are necessarily freed from the shadowy in the Law. No conclusion is to be drawn from this adverse to gospel institutions. "We may observe," says Alford, commenting on this passage, "that, if the ordinance of the sabbath had been in any form of lasting obligation on the Christian Church, it would have been quite impossible for the apostle to have used this language." This carried out would take the ground from under all gospel institutions. There would be no sign whatever now, connected with our religion, the reality having come. Liberation from all form is not certainly the New Testament idea. An argument may be drawn from the context. Circumcision was a shadow of the coming reality, viz. the putting off of the body of the flesh (death to the old). This reality we have now in Christ, but it does not therefore follow that it is disconnected from all positive institution. On the other hand, it is the teaching of the apostle that the same reality has been put into the gospel institution of baptism. Another argument may be drawn from the text itself. One of the feasts referred to is the Passover. The Paschal lamb was a shadow of the coming reality, viz. the sacrifice of Christ. But that great gospel reality has not been disenshrined. On the contrary, it has been put into an institution, which is to last till the close of the earthly order of things. So with the sabbath. It foreshadowed the reality of rest in Christ. We have now got the substance, but still the substance has been put into the institution of the Lord's day, in which it will remain till all earthly institutions are done away. Only there is this to be remembered, in connection with our use of gospel institutions. We are not to be legalistic in the use of them. We are not to feel as though baptism, or the Lord's Supper, or the Lord's day had any magical power in them. They simply serve to hold up gospel realities for our faith to grasp. And there is a freedom (as of sons) which belongs to us in the use of them, such as there was not connected with the Law.

II. ANGEL WORSHIP. "Let no man rob you of your prize." The Colossian Christians are here compared to the contenders in the Grecian games. The prize for which they were contending, and which they were in the way of obtaining, was eternal life. The word translated "rob" might seem to point to the false teachers as showing hostility in the character of judges. But that is not in accordance with the Pauline conception, in which Christ is Judge. Rather are we to think of them as showing their hostility in interfering with them in one form or another, so as to bring it about that they, the Colossians, did not receive the prize from the judge. And this is required by the connection. For the false teachers are represented as putting an obstacle in the way of the Colossians to trip them up so that they lose the prize. The obstacle is angel worship.

1. Its spurious humility. "By a voluntary humility and worshipping of the angels, dwelling m the things which he hath seen, vainly puffed up by his flesh y mind. We have already described the Eastern doctrine of successive emanations. These the Essenes (with their Jewish tendencies) identified with the successive orders of angels. These orders at intervals filled up the distance between God and men. They were so familiarly known as to be named. There was an appearance of humility in that. For it went on the supposition of the unapproachableness of God. We are such insignificant beings that it is not for us to worship so great a being as God. It only becomes us to worship the beings that lie nearer to us (the angels), and who have had more immediately to do with our creation. Regarding this humility the apostle asserts that it had its ground in their own will, not in reality. The way in which he makes it out is this: The angel worshipper "dwells in the things which he hath seen." This must be held to be a great blot on the Revised translation. The meaning suggested is that the angel worshipper is an inhabitant of the world of sense. This is nothing less than grotesque. For the angel worshipper shows the spuriousness of his humility by confidently going across the boundary line of sense. "Dwelling in" is a most objectionable translation. The word is literally to step on, to step off one place on to another. The exact sense depends on the retention or non-retention of "not" in the text. The former makes the better sense, well brought out in the old translation, "intruding into those things which he hath not seen." The latter has a slight preponderance of authority in its favour, and may be understood as giving the sense - stepping on to the domain of the visionary. The general meaning is undoubtedly this - that, while professing (in his humility) that he is only fit to worship angels, he penetrates illegitimately into the invisible world, i.e. not in the way of faith and revelation. He makes the large assertion that the Divine Being does not care for our worship. And he names (as though he had actually seen) the different orders of angels. And so the apostle makes it out to be not humility at all. It is (when unbared) inflation. It is inflation with what is baseless, unreal. It is inflation from a bad principle - the mind of the flesh (as distinguished from the mind of the Spirit). That is to say, there is in it fleshly discontent with the simple contents of revelation regarding the angel world. And there is the fleshly desire to appear to know more than is to be known. The lesson to be learned from this is that we are not to undervalue our humanity. We are all the greater beings that our Father in heaven is so great.

"We look up in our littleness
To thy majestic state;
Our comfort is thou art so good,
And that thou art so great." As the angel worshipper said that it was not for us to worship God, so the agnostic says nowadays that it is not for us to know God. If there is a God, he is not to be known, and we are not at liberty to go beyond the known. There is an appearance of humility in that, but if there is abundant evidence against holding the existence of God in suspense, then it is not really an indication of humility, but rather of proud dislike of God.

2. Its renunciation of the Head. "And not holding fast the Head, from whom all the body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and bands, increaseth with the increase of God." The apostle puts his objection to angel worship on a strong basis of truth. The parts of the body are jointed and banded. The joints and bands serve for the body being nourished and compacted. This takes place in connection with a common centre of vital energy. The result is the increase appointed for the body by God. So Christians in their relations to one another are as joints and bands. They form lines along which communications can be sent from Christ, by which the Church is nourished and compacted and has its appointed increase. But this is on condition of holding fast the Head. The angel worship, by which the false teachers would have tripped up the Colossians on their way to the goal, would have been a losing hold of Christ. It would have been a substituting for the mediation of Christ the mediation of inferior beings. It would have been fatal severance from him who does the whole work of mediation for men. And the same strong objection is to be taken to the regard paid to angels, to saints, especially to the Virgin Mary, in the Church of Rome. Whatever distinctions may be drawn by Roman Catholic theologians, whatever safeguards may be adapted, the practical result is what the apostle notes here, the letting go of the all sufficiency of the mediation of Christ and the paralyzing of the Church's energies.

III. ASCETICISM. The teaching of the apostle is that Christians are freed from mundane ordinances. "If ye died with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, do ye subject yourselves to ordinances?" One part of the truth of baptism is that we are sharers with Christ in his death. We not only die with Christ; but there is something to or from which we die. This is thought of sometimes as sin, sometimes as self, sometimes as the Law. It is here thought of as the world in its rudiments, that is to say, its teachings and rules (the latter prominent here), which are all rudimentary compared with the perfect form of Christianity. We have died to the world (God-forsaking) and its ordinances, why then, as though living in the world (as though we had not died, as though our former relations to the world were still maintained), should we subject ourselves to its ordinances?

1. These ordinances are prohibitory. "Handle not, nor taste, nor touch." Some, by a strange blunder, have supposed this to be an inculcation of abstinence by the apostle. He is, on the contrary, disparagingly giving the spirit of asceticism. It said, "Abstain, abstain, abstain." He gives the very words of asceticism, "Handle not, nor taste, nor touch." The words are given in the correct order in the Revised translation. With a descent of language, there is an ascent of superstition. The things referred to we are not to handle, nor are we to taste them, nor have the slightest contact with them. The error of asceticism is that it makes prohibition (negation) the essence of religion. The counteractive thought is that it is not by heaping up prohibitions that man's spiritual need can be met.

2. These ordinances relate to the outward. "All which things are to perish with the using." The things are the foods and drinks which were prohibited. The apostle seems to direct a double argument against asceticism. The meats and drinks had a good property; they had also a defect.

(1) They were for use. "With the using" is his language. That is to say, they had no inherent evil (according to the ascetic idea). They were made to be handled, to be tasted, to be touched. They were made for consumption. They were made (with a certain heartiness in the expression used) to be used up.

(2) They were in the use of them to go to corruption. They could not be used over again. Decomposition set in which became complete (destruction). As they could not thus be the be all for man (not being eternal), so neither, on the other hand, was religion to be placed in mere abstinence from them.

3. These ordinances are humanly imposed. "After the precepts and doctrines of men." There were numerous ordinances of God before the perfect religion came. These had close connection with religion as Divine helps. They were laid down authoritatively by God, and by them God taught important lessons. But the ascetics were out of date with their ordinances (partly Jewish they were in Essenism). They were only (even the Jewish parts of them) the precepts and doctrines of men. There was no authority for imposing them on the consciences of men.

4. These ordinances are not in their contents entitled to be called wisdom. "Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in win-worship, and humility, and severity to the body; but are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh." Ascetic observances were thought to be wisdom. They were intimately associated with worship. They were supposed to be based on the two great virtues of humility and self denial. The ascetics had the reputation of carrying these virtues even to excess. We have already referred to the practices of the Essenes. As an illustration of what the apostle means by humility and severity to the body, we may take the modern instance of Lacordaire. "Immediately after Mass, and while his face was yet lighted up with ineffable joy, he would seek the cell of one of his brethren, kneel humbly down, and beg for the full severities of discipline. Rising from it, all bleeding, he would press his lips on the feet of him who had chastised him, and overwhelm him with expressions of gratitude. Sometimes he would place himself under the monk's feet, and remain there a quarter of an hour in silence; sometimes he would not be content without the bestowal of still ruder chastisement - he must be boxed on the ears, be spit upon, be ordered about like a slave, 'Go, wretch, brush my shoes, bring me this thing or that;' he must even be spurned like a dog. Once in the convent at Chalais, after having delivered an affecting sermon on humility, he felt irresistibly impelled to follow up precept by example. He came down from the pulpit, begged the assembled brethren to treat him with the severity he deserved, and, uncovering his shoulders, received from each of them twenty-five strokes. The community was a large one, and the ordeal lasted a long time. Brethren, novices, and fathers stood by in deep emotion until all was over, and Lacordaire rose up pale and exhausted. One Good Friday he made himself a cross, raised it in a subterranean chapel, and, bound to it by cords, remained on it three hours." The apostle teaches that ascetic observances have only a show of wisdom.

(1) They are voluntary. He points to this element in the worship with which they were associated. We are to have soul-humiliation before God. We are to have humiliation for sin. But there is no call for our demeaning ourselves or our demeaning the humanity which God has given us. And such demeaning is not to be taken as an indication of soul humiliation. In the same way, we have to deny ourselves. The apostle even notes severe treatment of his body, "I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage." But we are not wantonly to buffet the body, as though God had given it to be a plague to the spirit, or as though it were meritorious in itself to do so. Such severity is not to be taken as a true laying of self on the altar.

(2) They are ineffective. He finds no fault with the end. They are intended to check the indulgence of the flesh. But he denies them value as means toward that end. They have only a charm for the few; the many must be repelled. And even with the few they are no proper safeguards. There are often witnessed outbreaks of the flesh, and even, where there are not such outbreaks, there is not the proper condition of the spirit. The only proper safeguard is the positive of the risen life with Christ, and especially of attraction toward him, to the consideration of which the apostle proceeds. - R.F.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:

WEB: Let no one therefore judge you in eating, or in drinking, or with respect to a feast day or a new moon or a Sabbath day,

The Shadow and the Substance
Top of Page
Top of Page