September 25 – Colossians 2:16-23

Main focus: Being rooted in Christ, don’t submit to any deception or pressure.

Finally, seven weeks into our series, we come to the nitty gritty of the problems in Colossae. In 2:16-23, Paul gets into some of the specifics of the Colossian heresy, and with his massive emphasis on the riches of union with Christ (1:13-2:15) providing all the momentum, delivers his only rebuke of the letter: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations?”(2:20)

Like I mentioned two weeks ago, unfortunately we don’t know a ton about this heresy or the exact false teachings that were plaguing the Colossians. The asceticism, angel worship, and visions of verse 18 sound a lot like mystical, pre-Gnostic beliefs that Paul addressed for the church in Ephesus (Eph 4:1-3), Corinth (1 Cor 6:12-7:5), and likely elsewhere. However, the mention of Sabbath and New Moon observance in 2:16 sounds like standard Judaism, or perhaps the work of Judaizers in the church who required Christians to also observe the Torah (cf. all of Galatians). 

Scholars have puzzled over the Colossian heresy for decades because Judaism and these pre-Gnostic beliefs don’t really mix well. Thus there could’ve been multiple false teachers in the area spreading these two different teachings, or this could have been the work of a single heretical teacher or sect that was hawking a unique combination of Christian, Jewish, and Greco-Roman/pre-Gnostic beliefs. Either way, the exact nature of the heresy doesn’t stop us from being able to apply the truth of this passage.

That big truth is this: while humans compulsively fabricate all sorts of religious notions that seem wise and profitable, only Jesus can save our souls and make us clean. In discussion, we’ll try to bridge the gap between these ancient, mystical teachings and the kind of stuff we’re up against today. “Worship of angels” is a good example. In Paul’s day, many people wore talismans with the names of angels carved into them as a protection from evil spirits. While that might seem arcane to us, we should ask ourselves about the things we turn to for protection today. How do we hope to control our own futures? For example, how do we look to fitness regimens to save us from aging, or money to insulate us from problems, or home security systems to keep us safe at night? 

Keep in mind, this can look very secular—for example, rather than practicing asceticism to make ourselves morally pure enough for God, perhaps we read the right books and use the right terminology to make ourselves morally pure enough for Twitter. But this can also look very Christian—we can give God our prayers and obedience out of our supposed love for him but all the while intend it as payment in exchange for his blessing.

The hard reality of that big truth is this: none of these things can save us or make us clean (even our seemingly Christian practices). Paul’s term here, “self-made religion,” is brilliant because it highlights how impoverished and incapable these attempts are at controlling our lives or earning God’s favor. We desperately need Jesus to free us from sin, which we are powerless to overcome on our own, and we desperately need him to make us clean (2:23).

That big truth then leads us to the command God gives us here: because Jesus alone can save our souls and make us clean, we should no longer submit to any man-made religion. Back to our union with Christ, having been united with him in his death we have died to sin and to these self-made religious practices. Being in Christ and engaging in these practices are incompatible—following Jesus is an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket relationship. But keep union with Christ in mind, because thankfully this isn’t all up to you. We’ll finish our discussion by looking at verse 19. The answer to our need for salvation and our inclination to return to self-made religion again and again are the same: hold fast to Jesus.

Questions for Discussion

• Could someone read Colossians 2:16-23 for us?

• What stood out to you from the passage?

• According to this passage, what is this “self-made religion” in Colossae and what is it doing to the Colossians?

• What “self-made religion(s)” do you think we deal with in our society today?

• What “self-made religion” do you think you most struggle with?

• Go back and read 2:13-15. How do you think your struggle is at odds with that passage?

• Look at verse 19. How does Jesus himself help us abandon our “self-made religion”?