A Sermon from Colossians 2:16-23
Introduction: Mao Zedong of China was wrong on so many levels, and the results in history are catastrophic. He was a Communist, an atheist, and tragically wrong in historic proportions. Here is one example. In the 1950s, Mao developed a belief that sparrows were a pest. They ate grain from the farms; and killing the sparrows of China, he thought, would result in enough surplus food for 60,000 people. He initiated a campaign to kill sparrows. The little birds were shot; their nests were destroyed; their eggs were broken. Chinese Communists succeeded in killing about every sparrow in Chinese air space. But Mao Zedong was wrong. He was operating on mistaken presuppositions. He did not realize that sparrows are natural predators to locusts. With the sparrows all gone, the locusts multiplied, devastating Chinese agriculture. It is estimated that more than 30 million Chinese died of malnourishment. The point? Defective thinking always leads to destructive living. If people are mistaken in their beliefs, they will be misguided in their behavior. Faulty thinking leads to flawed habits, because what you think effects how you behave and how you live. The Bible says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (see Proverbs 23:7). That’s why the apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Colossians. Sparrow-killers had entered the region–people whose wrong ideas could devastate the church.
Background: In Acts 19, the apostle Paul settled in the city of Ephesus for three years and planted a strong church. One day a man named Epaphras from the city of Colossae took Paul’s Gospel back to his hometown and planted a church among the people. He shared the Gospel in the Colossian region. Everything went well until some false teachers showed up, endangering the biblical faith of the new believers. Epaphras traveled to Rome and asked Paul to use his apostolic authority to write a letter to his church in Colossae and warn them against these errors. We don’t know exactly what the Colossian heresy was, but we can deduce some of its elements from the book of Colossians. The error was based in an inadequate view of Jesus Christ, and the apostle Paul corrected that with tremendous force in Colossians 2:9: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Now, whenever you deemphasize Christ, you create a philosophical and intellectual vacuum. All kinds of fallacies can fill up that void. In the Colossian church, three ideas were floating around.
- The first was legalism, which taught you have to keep the Jewish laws to please God, including the Old Testament dietary regulations and the holy days of the Jews.
- The second was a form of mysticism, which taught you should worship angels and other spiritual beings if you want to please God.
- The third was asceticism, which taught you had to deny and debase yourself to please God.
1. Don’t Let Legalists Confuse You; Christ is the Reality! (Colossians 2:16-17)
Paul confronts all three errors in Colossians 2:16-23. First, he said, “Don’t let the legalists confuse you; Christ is the reality.” Look at verse 16: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath Day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however is found in Christ. This is a very important verse when it comes to our Lord Jesus. You know what a shadow is, of course. If you get up on a sunny day and stand in the meadow, the sun sends your shadow back in a long westward column. Well, the entire Bible was written from the perspective of eternity, and the sunshine of God’s truth hit Jesus Christ and cast His shadow across every page of the Old Testament. The shadow of Jesus is on every page of the Old Testament. Paul was saying here about Christ: He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament law. It was all pointing toward Him, and the Gospel isn’t a message returning to legalism, but centering on Him who fulfilled the Law. So don’t let the legalists confuse you; Christ is the reality.
2. Don’t Let Mystics Confuse You; Christ is the Head! (Colossians 2:18-19)
Second, Paul said, “Don’t let the mystics confuse you; Christ is the head.” Look at verse 18: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” Christ is the head of His body and its rightful object of worship. We don’t worship angels or get drawn into astrology or fortune-telling. We are the body of Christ on this earth, and He is our living head who is causing us to grow as we all do our part.
3. Don’t Let Ascetics Confuse You; Christ is the King (Colossians 2:20 – 3:4)
Third, Paul said, “Don’t let the ascetics confuse you; Christ is the King.” Look at verse 20: “Since you died with Christ to the elemental forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish, are based on merely human commands and teachings.” The ascetics were telling people to deny themselves, to refuse to handle and taste and touch food and drink. They were telling them to treat their bodies harshly. In older days of Christianity, monks would flagellate themselves, engage in extended fasts, and expose themselves to bitter cold, all in an effort to modify the body and bring its urges under control. But none of those things worked. Verse 23 goes on to say: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” What does work? Setting your hearts and minds on Christ, who is the king, who has ascended to heaven after his resurrection and reclaimed His place on His eternal throne. Chapter 3 goes on to say: Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Conclusion: I hope you see the unfolding argument Paul is making. Here was a church being threatened by three different philosophies—legalism, mysticism, and asceticism. Paul said, “All these are defective ideas that will badly damage your life and your church.” Now, perhaps you aren’t contending with legalism, mysticism, and asceticism. Those things show up in modern ways in our culture; but there are other heresies blowing through society. The most dominate prevailing philosophy right now is atheism. It isn’t that everyone in our society is an atheist; it’s that our entire culture has shifted onto a philosophical platform of virtual atheism, and we don’t yet realize how pervasively that is influencing the behavior of our society. Last Sunday night I saw an interview on television with David Berlinski, a secular Jew, an agnostic and the editor of an international science journal based in Paris. Berlinski warned against atheistic intolerance in the academic world. He said, in effect, that theists are treated with contempt and loathing, though they may be right. Atheism is not a proven fact; it is far from proven; in fact, it is incapable of being proven; and there are good reasons to believe in the existence of God. Nevertheless, modern academia—the world of education—has chosen to operate on the basis of sheer atheism, and all other views cannot be tolerated. Berlinski said:
Something particular and peculiar seems to have come over intellectual life perhaps 20 years ago. In the 1950s and the 60s, the position [that there may be a Creator-God] was academically tolerated. It was a kind of cheerful agnosticism with respect to religious tradition of mankind…. Now [academics are] very, very vociferous and dogmatic. Atheism has become obligatory in the scientific community…. Atheism has replaced any kind of tolerate and forbearing agnosticism as the de facto standard in Anglo-American scientific intellectual life….
When asked if the physicists and biologists and chemists have any idea at all how the universe actually came into being. Berlinski’s answer floored me. Two words:
When asked about Darwinism, Berlinski said,
I have a lot of doubts [about Darwinism]. I have a lot of doubts and so do other people. There are many, many places when one looks at Darwinism, one would say, “Look this isn’t a scientific theory, it’s a collection of anecdotes.”
He was asked, Do you find that most atheists, most prominent atheists embrace Darwinism?
Every last one
And why do they do it?
Because it’s a secular myth. Even atheists need some compelling myth how we got here, what we are doing where, what our purpose is. How we got here? It was an accident. What are we doing here? We have no idea. What is our purpose? It’s replication—fornication and replication, that’s about it, but it’s… myth. People believe it. They act according to it.
In other words, we are living in a time when academia has been kidnapped by atheism; and atheism has become as intolerant as flint. Its presuppositions have created a culture in which the human body is the ultimate reality, and pleasure the ultimate goal, and despair is the ultimate conclusion. In our culture, the academics, the writers of our textbooks, and the creators of our movies are all killing sparrows. But the Bible says that not a sparrow falls to the ground without God seeing it, and that we are worth far more than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7. Jesus Christ, who is both God and Man, came down from heaven to redeemed us and to be a go-between for God and you and me. Our lives only find meaning and truth and true pleasure when we start with Him. You can never start living correctly until you start believing the right truths; and if you believe the right truths they will bring you to one Person—our Lord Jesus Christ. To Jesus, you are worth more than many sparrows. You are worth everything to Him, and until you realize that you’ll never be able to think the best, the wisest thoughts.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.
 Judith Shapiro, Mao’s War Against Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 86-89. Also see http://www.grunge.com/34283/the-worst-ideas-in-history/