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Clear Words

Clear Words – Legalism: the danger of ‘do’ and ‘do not’ (Colossians 2:20-23)

Today’s Reading: Colossians 1-4

Today’s Reflection:  Colossians 2:20-23

20) 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— 21) “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22) (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23) These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

While in prison, Paul learned that false teachers had infiltrated some of the churches he had ministered to, insisting that they be subject to strict observance of traditions like the keeping of certain days, abstinence from certain foods, and other traditional practices.  The letter to the church at Colossae was a response to this.  Unfortunately this letter has also been the source of much confusion about what the law should and shouldn’t be to a Christian.

Some people think Paul’s denunciation of the legalistic imposition of religious tradition is a denunciation of God’s law itself.  And this isn’t such an odd notion considering some of the things Paul wrote about the law and those overly concerned with its keeping.

Galatians 5:1-3 – 1) For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  2) Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  3) I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.

Yes, that’s Paul referring to the enforcement of circumcision as a ‘yoke of slavery’.  Strong words.  Yet, Paul doesn’t reject his own circumcision or keeping of the Mosaic laws or traditions.  He simply insists his Gentile brethren not have these traditions forced on them.  So in the broader context of everything Paul wrote, it becomes very clear that he does think the laws of God and the traditions He gave to Israel are very much valid, important and necessary.

Romans 7:12 – So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

1 Timothy 1:8 – Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,

That second text is particularly interesting.  If the law is good if used lawfully, then the logic follows that the law can also not be good if used improperly or in a way God never intended or purposed for it to be used.  This is where Paul’s criticism is coming from.  Not a rejection of the law itself, but a rejection of the ways of those so focused on keeping the law that they are blind to what the law really means—the fact that it is pointing the way to something much greater than the law: to Jesus Christ and His righteousness.

Colossians 2:6-8 – 6) Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7) rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.  8) See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

These false teachers insisting on the keeping of traditions are seeking their own path, a path which Paul says has “an appearance of wisdom” but is actually “self-made religion”, a path which employs the laws of God but attempts to do so without a living relationship with God, a path which denies the power of simply walking with Christ.

2 Timothy 3:5 – Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.

Critically Paul points out that the focus on keeping laws and traditions is “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh”.  Legalism can teach one to appear righteous, but cannot effect the change of heart that actually makes one righteous in the sight of God.  Only receiving Jesus Christ and walking with Him can do that.

Walking with Christ is a process that begins with baptism and ends with translation for eternity at Christ’s return.  A lot needs to happen in-between through the process of sanctification, but the false teachers of Paul’s day acted like a person was supposed to be ready for translation the moment they stepped out of the water.  It’s probably a familiar attitude to you—it’s the way some church leaders and members still are today.  But believers have a gift of freedom in Christ—the grace to grow to understand how to follow Him in time rather than having a burden of rituals they didn’t understand laid upon them.

Galatians 2:3-5 – 3) But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4) Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— 5) to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

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