Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. Colossians 2:16-23
I think most of us have heard how they train people to detect counterfeiter bills by getting the people to know the real bills inside out. Anything that doesn’t meet the “real” standard is easily distinguishable as false. It is a great analogy for the Christian faith, for knowing God. When you get to know what and why and how you believe, when you get to know and experience the character of God, it is easy to see where the counterfeits are. The Colossian church was struggling with not following the false teachers, with people who were promoting their own idea and opinion of Christianity. They were abusing their bodies, worshipping angels, following strict dietary rules for religious reasons – not for weight loss, and the list goes on. Paul says they have missed the path, the truth. All those things, those rules and regulations, are useless. Anything counterfeit is not only useless, but harmful. If you are sucked into a false spirituality, following some liar who promotes his own religiosity derived from his own “fleshly mind”, the truth will be that much harder to see, to know. Counterfeiters cause harm in other ways as well. Some of our fashion knock-offs are produced by forced child labour overseas, and so our demand for those things actually encourages slavery. A person who accepts a counterfeit unknowingly and then finds that it has no value has lost their investment. Can you imagine a person in a church that promotes a false theology finding out 10 years later just how far from the truth they were? You can’t get those ten years back – that costliest of resources, once spent, is gone – irreplaceable. Paul gives us three pieces of advice about how to deal with the spiritual counterfeits rampant in places like the Colossian church.
“The substance belongs to Christ” the first question to ask is, “Who is our judge? Against whose standard do we follow?” Paul reminds us that all the trappings and infrastructure we have here is temporary, shadows of things to come. There is a need to be not so uptight about the here and now, to keep our focus on what is eternal. You have heard the stories – churches split over where a white board is placed, or where coffee can be drunk. People who think something is done wrong and so off they go to find people who care as much as they do about carpets and paint. Don’t let the inconsequential be a cause to separate. 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 says, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Let Christ be our judge. Let us live with eternity in mind rather than just today and tomorrow.
Do you remember the term “carnal” or “carnal Christian”? These are Christians trying to live the Christian life in their own strength, their own wisdom. They are those who try to keep a foot in the world while maintaining a semblance of spirituality, often without realizing they are doing it. When we allow anything other than Jesus to be our judge and our focus, we will inevitably stray off the path that leads to life, and start relying on our own strength to do the “Christian” life. It is never about us, our strength – the “substance belongs to Christ”.
A second point that Paul makes about counterfeits is that they are “Defrauding you of your prize”. Do we let other people hold us hostage because our affections are tied to the wrong thing/person? God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ (from Ephesians, a letter Paul wrote at the same time as Colossians, and intended to be read by the Colossians). Paul says we are rich in Christ, and yet we live as if we are defeated and poor. We are children of the King of the universe, joint heirs with Christ, a people whose place in heaven is secure and guaranteed. That is the real stuff, the real thing. We are the prodigal son thinking we don’t deserve anything upon our return to our Heavenly Father – and the truth is we don’t deserve anything – we never did. We came to Christ by grace, we live by grace.
Sometimes we are kidnapped emotionally because of our inability to see the truth, to let the truth BE the truth. “Nice” Christians are often compelled to do what they do because of their fear of what others will think, or because of their emotional sensitivities, rather than the leading of the Spirit. They aren’t free in Christ because they do not give God the responsibility for other people, instead hanging on to those things as if they could do something about another person’s choices. Other people’s behaviour becomes controlling of their behaviour, and they allow themselves to be defrauded of their prize, of their freedom in Christ.
Lastly, Paul reminds us that we have “Died with Christ”. This is the heart of one spiritual battle – the flesh, the world, versus the spiritual. The difference between true spirituality and the spiritual counterfeits is that the spiritual counterfeits focus on the flesh, the physical. This does not mean that the physical is evil or bad. God created the physical world, and said it is good. But so often the physical becomes an idol, becomes the end in and of itself. When we subject ourselves to the rules and regulations of “doing”, we transfer our hope, our focus back on ourselves. We push Christ and His work away.
Listen to 1 John 2:15-17 “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.” Counterfeits look good, sound good, seem good; but it is an illusion. There is no substance, no truth behind the façade. When we are dealing with something as important as eternity, shouldn’t we make sure we have the truth? Shouldn’t we be checking the foundation?
We are here because we understand that Jesus has the answers. So we get to know Him, get to know the real thing. We get into the Word – we get to know the Word, searching the Scriptures daily. We spend time in prayer and meditation, listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to us. We read authors and listen to speakers who have a firm foundation in the faith. We listen to music that encourages our faith, that give praise to God. We hang around with people that do the same. Paul’s message here in Colossians is to be real.