The Worthlessness of Unauthorized Ceremonialism
Colossians 2:20-23
Why if you be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances,…

The apostle here reverts to the ethical errors of the false teachers. Combining his teaching here and elsewhere respecting what he calls "the rudiments of the world," we learn the following truths: -

I. "THE RUDIMENTS OF THE WORLD" WERE USEFUL IN THEIR OWN TIME AND PLACE. The difficult expression, "rudiments of the world," seems to mean elementary teaching on the religious life which was no part of the teaching of Jesus Christ. It was not necessarily opposed to Christianity; for it included much of the Mosaic legislation under which the Jews were treated as children and pupils (Galatians 4:3). These rudimentary lessons were both disciplinary and typical. Paul respected the prejudices of Jews and of Jewish converts in their favour (Acts 16:3; Acts 21:23-26). He allowed tender consciences to be bound by such rudiments as were not either of Jewish or Christian obligation (Romans 14:2, 3, 14). So in the present day, among heathens just emerging from darkness but not yet "risen with Christ," certain elementary precepts and restrictions may be valuable as temporary educational expedients. And more stringent rules of Church discipline than the New Testament enforces may be expedient for a time in the training of converts from heathenism who have just come out from a worse than Egyptian bondage. (Illustrate from Exodus 23:13, and similar requirements in Polynesia or other mission fields.)

II. THE CHRISTIAN IS EMANCIPATED FROM BONDAGE TO THESE RUDIMENTS. "If ye died with Christ," etc. "This death has many aspects in St. Paul's teaching. It is not only a dying with Christ (2 Timothy 2:11), but it is also a dying to or from something. This is sometimes represented as sin (Romans 6:2); sometimes as self; sometimes as the Law (Romans 7:6; Galatians 2:19); sometimes still more widely as the world," as here and in Colossians 3:3. Our Lord, by his teaching and example, set his disciples free from the traditions of men (Matthew 12:1-13; Matthew 15:1-9) and from some of the ceremonial laws of Moses (Mark 7:14-19, "This he said making all meats clean;" cf. Acts 10:15). By his death as the Sacrifice he fulfilled all that was typical in the ceremonial Law, so that by union with him "we have been discharged from the Law" (Romans 7:6). By his power as the risen Saviour, the supreme Head and Lawgiver of his Church, he replaces the precepts of Moses by his "I say unto you." He thus introduces all believers into a new sphere of life and liberty (Hebrews 12:18-25). 'We experience what Christ can do for us apart from "the rudiments of the world," and therefore need not go back to them. Having pardon, peace, purity, through the death and resurrection of Christ, it would be as unreasonable to seek those blessings in rudiments, as it would be for a cultured literary man to be constantly practising in elementary reading and spelling books. To "subject ourselves" to such restrictions would be as though a slave on the free soil of Britain should still crouch before his old master (Galatians 5:1).

III. THESE RUDIMENTS HAVE NO POWER TO PROMOTE THE OBJECT FOR WHICH THEY ARE RECOMMENDED. (Ver. 23.) So far as they were Mosaic they had no longer the value which belongs to even the most "positive" precepts as a test of obedience. In the Christian Church even the laws of Moses are merely "the precepts of men;" Jesus only is Lord. The rudiments respecting fasting, etc., which originated in asceticism, never bad any spiritual value, but were for the most past the result of fundamental error (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Self denial for our own good or that of others is commended by Paul (1 Corinthians 8:13; 1 Corinthians 9:27); but the asceticism of Colossae which was enforced on Christian converts is condemned as fostering pride and powerless to suppress sin. Pride may be pampered while the flesh grows lean (Wordsworth). Thus the axe is laid at the root of those unscriptural austerities which are glorified in the Church of Rome; e.g. even the saintly Pascal "wore beneath his clothes a girdle of iron with sharp points affixed to it, and when he found his mind disposed to wander from religious subjects or take delight in things around him, he struck the girdle with his elbow and forced the points into his side." Men notorious for filth have been canonized (for an illustration, see Eadie on Colossians, p. 211). How absurd to think that hair shirts and "thongs and whip cord are means of grace"! But as Dr. South has said, "The truth is, if men's religion lies no deeper than their skin, it is possible they may scourge themselves into very great improvements." Occasional fasts may be of value, but a religion of asceticism is "a libel upon Providence, a surly and superstitious refusal of Divine benignity." The safeguard against such errors is a clear view of our salvation by Christ, our union with him, our submission to him, and our fulness in him. - E.S.P.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,

WEB: If you died with Christ from the elements of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to ordinances,

The Soul's True Freedom in Christ Alone
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