20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21 “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22 These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23 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.
(Colossians 2:20-23 NIV)
Yesterday, Paul spoke about not letting others judge us by their “religious” standards. Paul called out the practices of the Jewish legalists that sought to combine following Christ with obeying the letter of the Old Testament law. Paul also warned against the practices of the eastern mystics that sought to combine following Christ with the worship of and communication with angels and other spiritual beings, as well as having a superior “knowledge” of God.
Today’s text is a continuation of that warning against following those human rules imposed by others in human judgment.
Let’s stop for a moment and look at the larger picture of what Paul is saying. Paul recognizes the goal of all human religion and moral teachings are to restrain external conduct according to a set of “rules”. The promise (or at least the hope) of these teachers and followers of human religion and moral codes is thus: by following these rules they will earn their way into a pleasant and satisfying afterlife (i.e., some form of “heaven”).
So what does the Bible teach? It certainly has moral codes, commands (“rules”) for life, the promise of a pleasant afterlife (heaven), just like the other religions over the centuries as well as today. What distinguishes Christianity from all other religions?
Paul’s letter to the Romans captures the heart of the difference:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
(Romans 12:2a NIV)
And what is this transformative power at work in us? It is none other than Jesus. Paul had previously reminded the Colossians of Christ’s transformative power, “… Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (chapter 1, verse 27)
Paul asks the Colossian believers why they would follow the heretics’ “rules”. In verse 20, Paul reminds us that by giving our life to Christ, we died to all these external religious and moral conformities. We are called to a higher standard of living for Christ. This standard is not about earning our way into heaven – it is impossible to meet God’s standard of perfection. Instead, our life is to be one of a deep and abiding relationship with the Lord as he changes (transforms) us from the inside out.
Paul is crystal clear about these “rules” – they are “… based on merely human commands and teachings. ” In one little sentence fragment, Paul strips these human religions and moral codes of any and all authority they try to impose on us (verse 22).
In verse 23, Paul anticipates and answers the assumptions and questions that many have about those who practice moral and spiritual restraint: “They are good people – what they say sounds good. Why is this wrong?”
Paul admits that from a human perspective, these “rules” sound good. No one will argue that self-restraint is better and more life-giving than self-indulgence. Paul’s point is that these man-made rules and moral codes “… lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
In other words, these “rules” simply seek to conform and restrain human behavior. They do not have the power to transform our lives from the inside out as only Christ can do.
Paul, having successfully argued his case against man-made religions and moral codes, rests his case.
As we learn and apply what Paul has taught us, we must ask ourselves some hard questions:
- Are my values based on man-made rules and codes of moral conduct, or on Christ and His Word?
- If I answered “Christ and His Word” to the question above, do I find myself changing my standards based on society’s accepted “norms” and “values”?
- Do I look beneath the surface of other human religions and moral teachings and ask myself why they teach what they teach and believe what they believe, or do I simply take them at face value and accept what they say?
Jesus said, ““I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16 NIV)
The power of Christ living in us will give us wisdom and power to live according to God’s standard and not according to human religious or moral standards.
May we choose wisely and carefully and live joyfully and victoriously as Christ’s life is in us.