Enjoying Your Freedom Without Abusing It
Colossians 2:8-23
Rev. Bryn MacPhail

When the apostle Paul writes to the various churches, he always has particular issues that he intends to address. When Paul writes to the Corinthians, there are dozens of behavioural and doctrinal issues that need addressing. When Paul writes the Galatians, there is one main problem to address--the people have been deluded into thinking that converts to Christianity must submit to the Jewish custom of circumcision. And here, in his letter to the Colossians, it is easy to discern that Paul has one main issue on his mind--a particular heresy that has crept into the Colossian community.

Although Paul goes on to address a few secondary issues, the bulk of his letter is an attempt to diffuse this heresy. Before treating the heresy itself, Paul has been giving us a lesson in "heresy-prevention", which is also the antidote to heresy--that is, a thorough knowledge of Jesus Christ. A proper understanding of who Christ is and what He has accomplished is essential to guarding against, and rooting out, heresy .

For this reason, Paul spends far more time talking about the antidote to heresy than the actual heresy itself. And this makes perfect sense. Those who are trained to identify counterfeit money do not study counterfeit money. Those who are trained to identify counterfeit money spend their time studying the real thing. And once they have an exhaustive familiarity with the real thing, it becomes easy to pick out counterfeit money. This same principle is practiced by Paul. Paul wants us to study Christ so that "no one may delude (us) with plausible arguments "(2:4).

Paul repeats this warning in verse 8 when he says to the Colossians, "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elemental spirits of the world, rather than according to Christ "(2:8).

With this verse, we see 2 parts of this heresy. The first part of the heresy is that it is man-made . It is not according to Christ, but "according to the tradition of men ". Every church should bear this principle in mind--the shape of our church building, the stained glass windows, the organ, the piano, the pews, the pulpit, and even the minister's gown are all derived from human tradition. That does not mean that these things are bad, it simply means that none of these things are important when compared to the riches of Christ. What is important is having a proper understanding of Christ and the gospel of Christ, not whether you sing from hymnals or from overhead projectors.

The second part of the heresy is that it is "according to the elemental spirits of the world ". The Greek word translated "elemental spirits " is an ambiguous term, but probably refers broadly to the forces that govern the universe(Bruce, Colossians , 95). One theologian observes that it is the tendency of humanity to either "worship the elements" or to "entrust (ourselves) to a deity that governs the elements"(Bruce, Colossians , 95). When we understand human tendencies in this way, it appears that the Colossian Christians had chosen to embrace the former, while Paul insists on the latter.

Paul then, directs his efforts to demonstrating the superiority of Christ over these "elemental spirits " in verses 9 and 10. Paul reminds the Colossians that "in (Christ) all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form " and that "He is the head over all rule and authority ". Paul is essentially saying, Why would you worship the "elemental spirits " when you can worship the One who created and controls these "elemental spirits "?

Again, there is great application here for us. Too often, we focus on what is seen rather than on Christ, who is unseen. With the best of intentions we talk about "counting our blessings", but what we should be doing is thanking the One who has blessed us. For the love our Creator and Redeemer has for us is much more valuable than any earthly blessing.

Paul goes on to list more reasons why the Colossians should not be consumed with the "elemental spirits " of the world in verses 11 and 12 "in (Christ) you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead ".

The reference to circumcision in the emphatic form is important because it indicates that the Colossian Christians were, at least for the most part, Jewish. Paul, who is attempting to explain the meaning of what Christ has done for them, employs 2 metaphors that the Colossians could relate to. In a largely Jewish context, everyone would have been familiar with circumcision, and now being Christians, they all would have experienced baptism. What Paul focuses on, of course, is not the ritual itself, but the meaning behind it. What was of primary importance to Paul was that, in Christ, sin has been cut away. In Christ, we have been given new life.

Paul goes on to remind us that "when (we) were dead in (our) transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, (Christ) made (us) alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross "(v.13, 14).

What matters most to Paul is that we, who were dead, are now alive. We, who owed God a gargantuan debt, have been freed from that debt by Christ. And since Christ has "disarmed the rulers and authorities ", since Christ has "triumphed "(v.15) over all that separated us from the love of God, we should not revert back to enslaving ourselves to a system of rituals--to a system of "do's and don'ts".

This does not mean, however, that we are free to do whatever we want. Freedom in Christ is not a license to sin. As Paul warned us in Romans, "Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! "(6:1, 2). Paul's point is that doing is no longer the point--being is. For Paul, Christian maturity is about being like Christ.

And since being like Christ is to be the goal of every Christian, Paul is adamant that "no one act as (our) judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day "(v.16).

We can now more clearly see the heresy that has crept into the Colossian community. Those whom Paul is opposing were insisting that the diet and rituals of Judaism, along with a few additional components, were mandatory for the Christian. The Greek word translated "judge " has the connotation of exclusion. Those whom Paul is opposing were apparently excluding other Christians because they were not following their particular ethical code.

In examining how Paul deals with this particular error, notice what Paul does not do . Paul does not say that the laws of the Old Testament are obsolete or abolished. He simply says that "they are a mere shadow of what is to come "(v.17). That is, following rituals is unimportant when compared to following Christ.

As a church, this is a principle we must constantly bear in mind. Christians, too often, get excited and emotional about issues that are but "a mere shadow of what is to come ", while we tend to be unmoved by issues of paramount importance. Speaking as a Presbyterian, we tend to place a higher value on our church building and furniture than we do on our ministries. This, quite frankly, is backwards. This is why Paul emphasizes our need to grow in our knowledge of Christ. If we don't, we will likely get caught up in arguments about whether or not Christians should be vegetarians. We will find ourselves in debates over whether Christians can have a glass of wine. We will end up discussing whether Christians can do gardening on Sunday.

Since these things are but "a mere shadow of what is to come ", Paul warns us not to be "defrauded of (our) prize " because of rituals invented by man--rituals that merely "puff up " our view of our own spirituality(v.18). Paul insists that we refrain from submitting to "decrees, such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!' . . . things destined to perish "(v.21, 22).

I recently read a very relevant illustration of this same kind of dilemma. Shortly after World War 2, the World Council of Churches sent John Mackie, president of the Church of Scotland, and two pastors from a different denomination to visit some of the villages where money had been disbursed.

One afternoon, Dr. Mackie and the other two pastors went to call on the Orthodox priest in a small Greek village. The priest was overjoyed to see them, and was eager to pay his respects. Immediately, he produced a box of Havana cigars and offered each of his guests one. Dr. Mackie took one, bit the end off, lit it, puffed a few puffs, and said how good it was. The other gentlemen looked horrified and said, "No thank-you, we don't smoke."

Realizing he had somehow offended the two who refused, the priest was anxious to make amends. So he excused himself and reappeared in a few minutes with some of his choicest wine. Dr. Mackie took a glassful, sniffed it like a connoisseur, sipped it and praised its quality. His companions, however, drew themselves back even more noticeably than before and said, "No thank-you, we don't drink!"

After the visit, when the three pastors were traveling in the jeep, the two pious pastors turned upon Dr. Mackie with a vengeance. "Dr. Mackie, do you mean to tell us that you are the president of the Church of Scotland and you smoke and drink?"

By this time, Dr. Mackie had all that he could take, and his Scottish temper got the better of him. "No, darn it, I don't, but somebody had to be a Christian!"

To put all of this in perspective for you, it will be helpful to compare the situation in Colossae with the situation in Corinth. In Corinth, the Christians were abusing their freedom in Christ. Their slogan was "All things are lawful for me "(6:12; 10:23), and so Paul had to counter this attitude of excessiveness. Paul countered this attitude by adding to their slogans, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable " (6:12; 10:23), "All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything "(6:12), "All things are lawful for me, but not all things edify "(10:23).

While the Corinthians overindulged in their freedom in Christ, the Colossians kept themselves shackled to man-made regulations. Both were in the wrong. In Corinth, their freedom needed to be tamed. In Colossae, their freedom needed to be asserted in the face of attempts to undermine it.

I site both the Corinthian and Colossian examples for a reason. There are, no doubt, individuals here today who abuse their freedom in Christ. Confident in his forgiveness, you do not stop and consider whether your particular habit or behaviour is moderate or edifying to others. On the other hand, there are others, I suspect, who have wrongly elevated human counsel above following the example of Christ found in the Scriptures alone.

Paul's purpose for writing the Colossians, and my goal today, is to pointus all back to Christ. We must, as individuals, and as a church, put first things first. Knowing Christ, and becoming like Christ, must become our singular goal. As Paul told the Philippians, everything is loss, everything is rubbish, everything is manure, compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ(Phil. 3:8). Learning about Christ and carrying out His will in this church must be our greatest priority. Other pursuits may indeed be valid, but they are secondary.

Since Christ is the fulfillment of the law, we are to follow Him above every man-made rule and regulation . Let us resolve today then, to enjoy this wonderful freedom of following Christ. Amen.