Book traversal links for Chapter Two Christ, The True Wisdom
The Mystery of God (Colossians 2:1-7)
Men who know little of the deep convictions that stirred the heart of the apostle Paul will have difficulty realizing the intensity of his feelings when the truth of God was questioned and the people of the Lord were in danger of being corrupted by false doctrine and turned aside from the simplicity that is in Christ. He wrote to the Colossians, “I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you” (2:1). This verse could also be translated, “I would have you know what intense agony I have for you.”
Paul was not one who could play fast and loose with revealed truth. His very soul was tortured when Christ was dishonored by those who professed His name. He was not a self-complacent liberal theologian, carelessly tolerant of any teaching, no matter how pernicious, as long as it did not disrupt outward unity.
The apostle was intensely concerned about the fact that at both Colossae and Laodicea, designing men were seeking to seduce the saints from their first love—that is, Christ. We know that the enemy was largely successful at Laodicea, for the glorified Son of man charged the Laodiceans with being “neither cold nor hot” (Revelation 3:15). Proud of their culture and wealth, they were indifferent to Christ. Paul sought to save the Laodiceans and Colossians from such indifference, and it is to be hoped that he succeeded with the Colossians.
Truth unites. Error divides. Paul wanted the hearts of the Colossians to be “knit together in love” as they understood “the mystery of God” (Colossians 2:2). There is some manuscript diversity in the wording of the last part of this verse. The King James version reads, “The mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ”; this translation is admittedly peculiar. A more understandable rendering of the same manuscript would be “The mystery of God, even of the Father, and of Christ.” But Paul’s meaning seems clearer in other manuscripts that can be translated, “The mystery of God, even Christ”; this version is probably the correct one. Paul was referring to the great divine mystery of the “new man” (Ephesians 2:15). As we read in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13:
As the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
There probably should be a definite article before “Christ” in 1 Corinthians 12:12, for it is the mystical Christ that is in view. I take it that we have a similar idea in Colossians 2:2. “The mystery of God” is that which He has now revealed regarding Christ as Head of the body and consequently of the entire new creation.
As believers comprehend “the mystery,” they are delivered from vain speculations and fleshly strivings, for all perfection is found in Christ. The apostle wanted the Colossians to have “the full assurance of understanding” as their hearts acknowledged the wealth of this great mystery. In Hebrews 6:11 we read of “the full assurance of hope” and in Hebrews 10:22 we read of the “full assurance of faith.” Full assurance of understanding, hope, and faith—these together establish the soul and set it free from doubt and fear.
In Christ—or, if you prefer, in this mystery of God now revealed—”are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). It is not necessary to go elsewhere—that is, to investigate human systems and philosophies—to find an explanation of the mystery of the universe and the relationship of the Creator to His creatures. As we learn to know Christ better and understand the truth concerning Him, every question is answered, every perplexity made clear, and every doubt dissolved. Why turn aside to idle speculations, no matter how pretentious, when God has spoken in His Son and given His holy Word to lead us by the Spirit into all truth?
Paul wanted to protect the saints from being led astray by persuasive talk or “with enticing words” (Colossians 2:4). Advocates of error delight to clothe their evil systems in most attractive phraseology in an attempt to entrap the souls of the unwary. Only the truth of God can preserve believers when they are exposed to such deception. It is important to remember that no amount of intellectual culture or human learning can take the place of divine revelation. If God has not spoken, we may speculate and reason as we please. But if He has given the truth in His Word, there is an end to all our theorizing. In Colossians 2 Paul showed how Christ is the antidote for human philosophy, Jewish legality, oriental mysticism, and carnal asceticism. These have no place in Christianity. Christ supersedes them all.
The apostle knew (through the report of Epaphras) what Christ had meant to the Colossian saints from the time of their conversion and he was concerned that they might now be turned aside from Him. Though not with them physically, he was one with them in spirit and he rejoiced in all he heard of their godly orderliness and steadfast confidence in Christ. They had begun their Christian journey in faith; moreover they had continued in the same paths of truth and Paul did not want them to go astray. They had received Christ Jesus the Lord—that is, they had trusted Him as Savior and owned Him as Master—and the apostle now wanted them to walk in Him, not turning aside to any new system or perversion of the truth.
Paul’s desire was that they be “rooted and built up” in Christ (Colossians 2:7). Then, as a tree sends its roots deep down into the soil, they would draw on hidden sources of supply, all centered in Christ; and as a building founded on a rock is firmly established, they would recognize Christ as their only foundation. The apostle used the same figures of speech in Ephesians 3:17: “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love.” God is love; so to be rooted and established in love is to be rooted in and founded on God, God revealed in Christ.
If a man walks “in him” (Colossians 2:6), he is established in the faith, “abounding therein with thanksgiving” (2:7). Nothing causes the soul to overflow with worship and gratitude to God so much as a deep knowledge of Christ. True joy is only found in acquaintance with Him. Why then should anyone go after speculative theories that cannot give the soul peace and that make light of Christ the Head?
Every system that makes light of Christ or His atoning blood is from the pit and is to be shunned as a viper by all who know Him. So-called Christian Science is an example. A follower of Mrs. Eddy, the now-deceased head of the cult, visited a simple Christian woman and labored long to explain the professed benefits and beauties of that system. After listening for several hours, the Christian found herself utterly unable to follow the specious sophistries and vapid theorizings of her visitor. Finally the Christian exclaimed, “I do not understand what you are getting at. Can’t you put it all in simpler terms so that I may know what it is that you want me to believe?”
“Well,” replied the cultist, “in the first place you must understand this: God is a principle not a person. You see, my dear, we worship a principle.”
“Enough,” exclaimed the other with a relieved expression on her countenance, “That would never do for me! I worship a personal God revealed in Christ, my blessed, adorable Savior.” And at once her soul was delivered from the net spread before her by the soft-voiced emissary of Satan who had been endeavoring to ensnare her.
The test of any system is whether it makes light of Christ.
“What think ye of Christ?” is the test,
To try both your state and your scheme;
You cannot be right in the rest,
Unless you think rightly of Him:
As Jesus appears in your view—
As He is beloved or not,
So God is disposed to you,
And mercy or wrath is your lot.
Some take Him a creature to be—
A man, or an angel at most;
But they have not feelings like me,
Nor know themselves wretched and lost.
So guilty, so helpless am I,
I durst not confide in His blood,
Nor on His protection rely,
Unless I were sure He is God.
Some call Him a Saviour, in word,
But mix their own works with His plan;
And hope He His help will afford,
When they have done all that they can:
If doings prove rather too light
(A little they own they may fail),
They purpose to make up full weight,
By casting His name in the scale.
Some style Him “the Pearl of great price,”
And say, He’s the fountain of joys;
Yet feed upon folly and vice,
And cleave to the world and its toys.
Like Judas, the Saviour they kiss,
And while they salute Him, betray:
Oh! what will profession like this
Avail in His terrible day?
If asked what of Jesus I think,
Though still my best thoughts are but poor,
I say, He’s my meat and my drink,
My life, and my strength, and my store;
My Shepherd, my trust, and my Friend,
My Saviour from sin and from thrall;
My Hope from beginning to end,
My Portion, my Lord and my All.
The natural man cannot understand why Christians should insist on a clear-cut confession of the truth about Christ. “What does it matter,” he asks, “whether Jesus is a mere man, more spiritual than most, or the divine eternal Son in the form of man? If He is only a man, He is still the great example and the master teacher. If He is more than man, He is only the revelation of the Father: by His life of love and purity He has shown us God’s attitude toward all mankind and has lead us into a better understanding of God and our relationship to Him.”
The natural man does not understand Scriptural truth concerning Christ. His holy life—whether only human or divinely human— can never take away our sins or fit us to stand uncondemned before the eternal throne. He had to be both God and man in order to make atonement for sin; as perfect man He had to meet every claim that the outraged deity had against sinful man. If you detract from the person of Christ, you detract from His work. If that work was not divinely perfect, there remains no other sacrifice for sins and we are left without a Savior.
But we can thank God that He who came forth from the Father has glorified Him on the earth and having finished the work that was given to Him to do, He has gone back to the glory that He had with the Father before the world was (John 16:28; 17:4-5). There He sits on the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens; the exalted man who purged our sins ever lives to make intercession for those His grace has saved (Hebrews 1:3; 7:25). Happy in this knowledge, we may well sing with chastened joy:
Head of the Church! Thou sittest there,
Thy members all the blessings share—
Thy blessing, Lord, is ours:
Our life Thou art—Thy grace sustains,
Thy strength in us each vict’ry gains
O’er sin and Satan’s pow’rs.
May we prove our loyalty to Him, not only by confessing a true Christ with our lips, but also by giving Him the supreme place in our lives!
Human Philosophy (Colossians 2:8-10)
Nowhere in Scripture is the acquisition of knowledge condemned. It is the wisdom of this world, not its knowledge, that is foolishness with God (1 Corinthians 3:19). Philosophy is merely worldly wisdom. It is the effort of the human mind to solve the mystery of the universe, but it is not an exact science, for philosophers have never been able to come to any satisfactory conclusion about the “why” or “wherefore” of things. “The Greeks seek after wisdom,” we are told in 1 Corinthians 1:22, and it was they who led the way in philosophical theorizing.
Before the divine revelation came, it was proper for man to seek by wisdom to solve the riddles that nature was constantly posing. But now that God has spoken, this is no longer necessary and it may lead to grave infidelity. From Plato to Kant, and from Kant to the last of the modern philosophers, one system of thought has overturned another; the history of philosophy is a record of contradictory, discarded hypotheses. I am not saying that the philosophers were or are dishonest men, but I am saying that many of them have failed to avail themselves of that which would unravel every knot and solve every problem: namely, the revelation of God in Christ as given in the Holy Scriptures.
Plato yearned for a divine word, logos, that would come with authority and make everything plain. We know that the Word is Christ, of whom John wrote: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14). The Word is no longer hidden; we do not need to search for it. Paul said in Romans 10:8-9, “The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”
Socrates, pondering the “unsolvable” problems relating to possible future rewards and punishments, said, “It may be, Plato, that the Deity can forgive sins, but I do not see how.” No such perplexities need trouble any honest mind now, for what philosophy could not explain, the gospel has made clear—that gospel in which the righteousness of God is revealed to sinful men. Apart from this divine revelation, the wisest philosopher of the twentieth century knows no more about the origin and destiny of man than the Athenian philosophers knew so long ago.
Two great philosophical systems were contending for mastery over the minds of men in the western world when Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians: stoicism and epicureanism. Stoicism said: “Live nobly and death cannot matter. Hold appetite in check. Become indifferent to changing conditions. Be not uplifted by good fortune nor cast down by adversity. The man is more than his circumstances; the soul is greater than the universe.” Epicureanism said: “All is uncertain. We know not whence we came; we know not whither we go; we only know that after a brief life we disappear from this scene, and it is vain to deny ourselves any present joy in view of possible future ill. Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Christianity had nothing in common with epicureanism. But the Christian message appealed to many stoics; we only need to read 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 or Philippians 4:11-13 to understand why. While the stoic might find the fulfillment of his heart’s yearning in Christianity, there was nothing in stoicism that the Christian needed, for everything that was best in that system he already had in Christ.
Besides these two outstanding philosophical schools there were among both the Greeks and Romans many lesser systems, all of which sought to draw away disciples to themselves. The gnostics included parts of all the different schools of thought in their new system. From the weird guesses embodied in the pythagorean fables down to the evolutionary theories of the present time, the church of God is in conflict with all vagrant philosophies.
Against such the Christian is warned. Colossians 2:8 says, “Beware lest any man spoil [make a prey of] you through philosophy and vain deceit.” Worldly philosophies may make a great show of learning, and their adherents may look down with contempt from their heights of fancied superiority on people simple enough to believe the gospel and to accept the Holy Scriptures as the inspired Word of the living God. But in spite of all their pretentiousness, these philosophies are simply the traditions of man, “the rudiments [first principles] of the world.”
The apostle expressed his contempt for mere reasoning in comparison with divine revelation. He said that the systems that claimed so much were after all but elementary; they offered the ABCs of the world to those who were in the school of Christ and who had left the kindergarten of human tradition far behind. Can a man “by searching find out God?” (Job 11:7) Impossible. But God is already known in His Son.
It is most important that Christians should heed Paul’s warning in Colossians 2:8, particularly the young men who are called of God to be ministers of His Word. In the average theological seminary, far more time is given to studying philosophy than to searching the Scriptures. What a sad commentary on conditions in Christendom! A minister of an orthodox church said, “I could have graduated with honors from my seminary without ever opening the English Bible.” Thank God, this is not true of all such training schools, but it is true of perhaps the majority. The result is that among the thousands of so-called ministers of Christ, many are unconverted and others who are children of God have been stunted and hindered by their philosophical education. They are utterly unable to open up the Scriptures to others, for they are ignorant of the Word themselves. Like the Bible, Christianity owes no debt to Greek, Roman, medieval, or modern philosophy.
A glory gilds the sacred page,
Majestic like the sun,
It gives a light to ev’ry age;
It gives, but borrows none.
A man can be a well-equipped minister of Jesus Christ even if he has never heard the names of the great philosophers, pagan or Christian, and is utterly ignorant of their systems and hypotheses, provided that he will “study to shew [himself] approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The truest culture, intellectual or spiritual, is that which is drawn from the constant study of the Bible. Often I come in contact with men of gracious personality, gentlemanly appearance, high spirituality, and well-trained intellect and find upon inquiry that they, like John Wesley, are “men of one book” and in some instances hardly conversant with the literature of earth. In saying this I do not mean to put a premium on ignorance, for the knowledge of this world is not under a ban. The Christian may well avail himself of any legitimate means of becoming better acquainted with the facts of history, the findings of science, and the beauties of general literature; but let him never put human philosophy in the place of divine revelation. If he studies philosophy at all—and there is no reason why he should not do so—let him remember that God has spoken in His Son and that in the Holy Scriptures He has given us the last word on every question that philosophy raises. Robert Browning was right when he wrote:
I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ
Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it,
And has so far advanced thee to be wise.
When the Savior revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman, she found her every question answered as she gazed on His face.
Colossians 2:9 tells us that in Christ “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” The word translated “fulness,” pleroma, was a favorite term of the gnostics. It represented to them the sum of the qualities of deity, and they considered Christ to be one of many steppingstones or intermediaries leading up to the pleroma. But in Scripture we learn that not only are all the attributes of God seen in Christ (as Arius afterward thought and as theistic philosophers everywhere admit); the very essence of the nature of God in all its entirety dwells in Him.
All that God is, is fully revealed in Christ. He could say, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9). Therefore, if anyone asks us to describe the character of God, we can say without hesitation that God is exactly like Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, and in Christ all the fullness of deity dwells in a body. When at last we come into the presence of the Father, we will find in Him One known and loved before, not a stranger still unknown and possibly unknowable. As J. N. Darby wrote:
There no stranger-God shall meet thee!
Stranger thou in courts above:
He, who to His rest shall greet thee,
Greets thee with a well-known love.
God is revealed; He is no longer hidden. All His glory shines in the face of Christ Jesus. And for me as a believer the mystery of the universe is solved.
And that which seemed to me before
One wild, confused Babel,
Is now a fire-tongued Pentecost
Proclaiming Christ is able;
And all creation its evangel
Utters forth abroad
Into mine ears since once I know
My Saviour Christ is God.
In Colossians 2:10 we are told, “And ye are complete in him.” In Christ dwells all the pleroma of deity, and we have our pleroma in Him. We do not need to go elsewhere for illumination or information. “Of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:16-18). This revelation floods our being with rapture, fills our cup of joy, and satisfies every demand of the intellect. We are filled full in Him.
In Ephesians 1:6 we are told that we are “accepted in the beloved.” In that sense—in our standing as believers—we may be said to be complete in Him. But in Colossians 2:10 our state rather than our standing is in view—the state of those who have found every need met in Christ, “which is the head of all principality and power.”
Principalities and powers are terms relating to different ranks of spiritual beings. The gnostics reveled in a pretended knowledge of the nature and function of these glorious intelligences and placed them high above Christ. According to them, Christ was merely the one who introduced the initiate into the fellowship of this serried host that lead up to the invisible God. But the truth is just the opposite, for all principalities and powers—and these may be good or evil, fallen or unfallen—were created by Him and for Him in whom all the fullness dwells (Colossians 1:16; 2:9). He is the Head of all angelic companies as well as all human beings. “No place too high for Him is found, / No place too high in Heaven.” God wants His people to realize that He who stooped to the depths of the shame and suffering of the cross for their salvation, is God over all “blessed for ever” (Romans 9:5).
Observe that it is immediately after the declaration of Christ’s headship over all angels (Colossians 2:10) that we are told of the depths of His humiliation, for God would never separate the person and the work of our Lord Jesus. God would have us remember that it was because of Christ’s transcendent character and His true deity that He could undertake the work of purging our sins by giving Himself as a sacrifice on our behalf. He had to be who He was in order to do what He did.
The sin question could never have been settled by a created being, for the issues were too great. A free translation of Psalm 49:7-8 says of all men: “None of them can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him, for the redemption of the soul costs too much. Therefore, let it alone forever.” These verses from the Psalms emphasize what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Colossians: Low thoughts of Christ result from low thoughts of sin. When a person realizes the enormity of his iniquity, he knows that only the Daysman for whom Job yearned can save him from such a load of guilt. Christ, because He is God and man, can “lay his hand upon us both” (Job 9:33) and thus, by making atonement for sin, bring God and man together in holy, happy harmony.
Can a mere man do this?
Yet Christ saith, this He lived and died to do.
Call Christ, then, the illimitable God,
To all the questionings of the mind of man about spiritual verities, God has no other answer than Christ; and no other is needed, for Christ is the answer to them all. He who refuses Christ refuses God’s last word to mankind. He has said everything He has to say in sending Him into the world as the giver of life and the propitiation for our sins. To turn from Him is to refuse the living incarnation of the Truth and to block out everything but error and delusion.
Jewish Legalism (Colossians 2:11-17)
This somewhat lengthy passage begins in the middle of a sentence. Verse 11, though part of the sentence begun in verse 10, introduces a new subject and that subject is legalism. While philosophy is the result of the human mind working independently of divine revelation, legalism is the result of the attempt to use a divinely given code (to which precepts of men may have been added) as a means of salvation or as a means of growth in grace. Legalism is not Scriptural. Galatians 2:16 forever rules out legal works as a means of procuring salvation: “By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” Just as effectually, Romans 6:14 forbids the thought that holiness of life for the Christian is found in subjecting himself to legal principles: “Ye are not under the law, but under grace.” We are told in 1 Corinthians 15:56 that the law is “the strength of sin.” The law is not, as multitudes have supposed, the strength of holiness or the power for righteousness. The dynamic of spirituality is the indwelling Holy Spirit, who points us to Christ crucified, raised, and glorified.
Gnosticism was as much indebted to legalistic Judaism, which it perverted to its own ends, and to a weird Jewish cabbalism as it was to the insipid reasonings of Gentile philosophers and Mithraic and Zoroastrian mysticism. In Colossians 2:11-17 the apostle dealt specifically with Jewish legalism and showed how Christians have been forever delivered from the law. They are now linked with the risen Christ and for them to go back to the law to perfect themselves in holiness would be to fall from grace (as Paul showed in the Epistle to the Galatians). Legalists virtually set aside the gospel of grace; they forget that having begun in the Spirit we are not to be made perfect by the flesh.
Ever dogging the footsteps of the great apostle to the Gentiles were those who sought to pervert his converts by teaching them that they had “to keep the law of Moses.” These legalists said, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1,5). Although the council at Jerusalem gave forth no uncertain sound in opposition to this teaching, the decisions of the council were by no means everywhere accepted. It was hard for converts from Judaism to realize their complete deliverance from the law of Moses as a rule of life and from the ceremonies and rituals of that law as a means of growth in grace.
Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul handled the issue in a remarkable manner. Having declared that we have our completeness in Christ, our exalted Head, he continued: “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11). The words “of the sins” were probably not in the original manuscript and could be omitted. It is not merely the sins of the flesh, but the flesh itself that is in view here.
Circumcision is the cutting off of the flesh physically, and the ritual was given by God to picture the complete setting aside of the carnal nature. This is what God has done in the cross of Christ. It was the end of the flesh as viewed from the divine standpoint; Christ was cut off by death as He stood vicariously in our place.
In the circumcision “made without hands” the carnal nature is cut off, put to one side as absolutely worthless. “The flesh,” we read, “profiteth nothing” (John 6:63). “It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Therefore God makes no attempt to improve the flesh; consequently there is no place for claims to merit as far as man is concerned. He has none and, praise God, he needs none. All merit is in Another!
The same truth is demonstrated in Christian baptism. Personally I have no sympathy for those who in our day would like to do away with water baptism; they argue that there is now only one baptism— that is, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 4:4-6, which refers to water baptism, has been true ever since Pentecost.
The book of Ephesians, one of the prison Epistles, does proclaim the truth revealed to Paul about the church as the body of Christ, but he did not receive the revelation of this mystery after he went to prison. He made this mystery known throughout his ministry. In Romans 16:26 he said that this mystery had been “made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.” The rapture, which is part of this mystery, is taught in his earliest Epistle, First Thessalonians. When he said to the Ephesian elders, “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), that counsel in its entirety had already been made known to him and proclaimed among the Gentiles.
The baptism of the Holy Spirit whereby believers were brought into the body of Christ took place on the day of Pentecost. By this baptism the body, the church, was formed. There is no hint in Scripture that any such supernatural work was widespread after Paul’s imprisonment. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, the body had been formed for years, and each believer was added to it when that believer received the Spirit.
In my judgment Ephesians 4:5 cannot refer to Pentecost because this event is already mentioned in the previous verse. Verse 4 refers to the full revelation of the mystery: the body formed by the Spirit’s baptism and waiting for the coming of the Lord. We read, “There is one body, and one Spirit… and one hope of your calling.”
Then in verse 5 we read of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” This refers to responsibility here on earth: Christ is to be acknowledged as Lord; the church is to “contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3); and water baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to be observed in recognition of our subjection to the one Lord. In Ephesians 4:5 Paul was not citing a formula or making a list; he was declaring the broad fact that Christianity knows only one baptism, and that of course is baptism unto the death of Jesus Christ. To speak of the Holy Spirit’s baptism as a burial with Christ is nonsense. It is after my identification by faith with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ that the Holy Spirit baptizes me into the body.
I am not saying that people who for various reasons, valid or otherwise, have not been scripturally baptized are not in Christ. In drawing an illustration from what is scripturally correct, one does not unchristianize those who fall short either because of ignorance or willfulness.
The argument of Colossians 2:12, as I see it, is this: The Christian confesses his identification with a rejected Christ in his baptism. He admits that he as a natural man deserved to die, and he has died in Christ’s death. With the death of the natural man comes the end of the legalistic man and therefore the end of all self-effort, of every attempt to improve the flesh by subjecting it to ordinances or regulations, whether divinely given as in the Old Testament or humanly devised as in so many unscriptural systems. God is not trying to improve the old man; He has judged him too evil for any improvement and has therefore set him to one side in death. Baptism is the recognition of this. It is burial unto death.
Colossians 2:12 continues, “Wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.” The preponderance of evidence is, I believe, in favor of substituting “In whom” for “Wherein.” It is through faith in the risen Christ that we become the recipients of the new life and are henceforth viewed by God as those who, having gone down into death with Him, are now one with Him in resurrection. What place does legalism have here? None whatever. To put the new man, the man in Christ, under rules and regulations is contrary to the entire principle of new creation.
This thought is further emphasized in Colossians 2:13: “You, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.” (The same word is translated “sins” in the first part of the verse and “trespasses” in the last.) Paul was saying that God has forgiven our trespasses and we who once were dead in our trespasses and as Gentiles were uncircumcised in our flesh have now been made to live together with Christ.
Colossians 2:14 continues, “Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross.” The expression “the handwriting of ordinances” could only be properly used to refer to the ten commandments, which we are distinctly told were given in the handwriting of God. The sinfulness of our natures made our disobedience to the law a foregone conclusion and therefore the law (the ten divinely given ordinances) condemned us to death. But the law has now been taken out of our way and no longer hangs over us as an unfulfilled obligation. Christ nailed the law to His cross.
We might better understand the expression “nailing it to his cross” if we remember what was customary under Roman law when a criminal was executed by crucifixion, hanging, or impalement. The law the criminal had broken or the nature of his offense was written on a placard, which was nailed above his head so that everyone would know how Rome administered vengeance on those who violated her criminal code. Pilate wrote out the inscription to be placed over the head of Christ Jesus—in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—so that all might know why the patient sufferer from Galilee was being publicly executed. John 19:19 tells us that Pilate wrote: “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.” As the people read this inscription, they understood that He was being crucified because he made Himself a King and was thus disloyal to caesar.
But as God looked on that cross His holy eye saw, as it were, another inscription altogether. He saw, nailed on the cross above the head of His blessed Son, the ten handwritten ordinances given at Sinai. It was because this law had been broken in every point that Jesus poured out His blood, thus giving His life to redeem us from the curse of the law. And so all of our sins have been paid for. At the cross the law, which we had so dishonored, was magnified to the full as Jesus Himself satisfied divine justice. Thus Christ has become the end of the law to everyone who believes (Romans 10:4). Of course when Paul spoke of the ordinances that were against “us” (Colossians 2:14), he had Jewish believers in mind, for Gentiles were not under the law. But it is true now in principle for all to whom the knowledge of the law has come. Christ has by His death met every claim against us and canceled the debt we could not pay. Now as a victorious leader He has come forth from the tomb. He made a prey of the evil principalities and powers who gloated over His apparent defeat when He was crucified, but are themselves now defeated in His resurrection. Having made a spectacle of them, He has ascended to Heaven in a glorious triumph.
His be the Victor’s name,
Who fought the fight alone;
Triumphant saints no honor claim,
His conquest was their own.
By weakness and defeat,
He won a glorious crown,
Trod all our foes beneath His feet,
By being trodden down.
Bless, bless the Conquer’r slain,
Slain in His victory;
Who lived, Who died, Who lives again,
For thee, His church, for thee!
Christ took our place on the cross and now we share in all the results of that sacrifice. We are one with Him in the new creation. The law and all its ritual was given to man in the flesh. Christians are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, and the law as such has nothing to say to the man in this new sphere beyond the reach of death.
Paul concluded this marvelous passage with a solemn admonition not to permit ourselves to be disturbed by any who would put us back under the law in any shape or form: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days” (Colossians 2:16). All these once had their place and an obedient child of the old covenant scrupulously observed the regulations regarding them. They were, however, only “a shadow of things to come [things which have now come]; but the body is of Christ” (2:17).
In the Old Testament dispensation the light of God was shining on Christ, and all the forms and ceremonies including the weekly sabbaths were but shadows cast by Him. Since He Himself has come and fulfilled all the redemptive types, the believer has everything in Jesus. The fact that Colossians 2:16 links the sabbath with the other ceremonies shows clearly that the rule of life for the believer is not the ten commandments. While acknowledging this law to be holy, just, and good, the new-creation man is not under it. He is, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:21, “under the law to Christ”; that is, his responsibility now is to walk in fellowship with the risen Christ, the Head of the body of which he is but a feeble member. In him now dwells the Holy Spirit, who is the power of his new life, which is demonstrated in his subjection to the exalted Lord.
No one needs to fear that the result of being in subjection to Christ rather than being under the law as a rule of life will be a lower standard of piety. Christ’s standard is far higher. The person whose one thought and desire is to display the risen life of Christ in all his ways will lead a holier life than he who is seeking to subject the flesh to rules and regulations—even though the rules were given from Heaven in a past dispensation. Evidence of this is seen in the contrast between the sabbath of the law and the Lord’s day of the new creation. There is no commandment in the New Testament inculcating the sacredness of the first day of the week and demanding that Christians observe it scrupulously for holy purposes, yet the consensus of judgment of spiritually-minded believers all through the centuries has led to the honoring of this day as a time of worship, meditation, and Christian testimony. From a spiritual standpoint, therefore, the Lord’s day has been given a pre-eminence that the Jewish sabbath never had.
We are not called on to substitute a Christian ritual for the Jewish ritual that we have discarded. Now we worship by the Spirit of God, who delights in directing the hearts of the redeemed toward Him to whom they owe all their blessings. Thus all that is of the flesh or carnal, being prefatory and transient, must give way to that which is spiritual and abiding.
Gnostic Mysticism (Colossians 2:18-19)
The natural man is distinctly religious. He does not need to be regenerated in order to grope for God. While it is true of all the unsaved that “there is none that seeketh after God” in the sense of seeking Him for His own sake (Romans 3:11), it has been well said that man is incurably religious; he must have something to worship. And so Satan has supplied him with cults of all descriptions to suit every type of mind.
One of the oldest religious systems is Parseeism, which has survived even to our own day. Parseeism, which is based on the Zend Avesta, is supposed to have originated with the Persian hero and prophet Zoroaster, or Zarathustra as he is called in the Persian scriptures. This system teaches a mystical dualism: Ahura Mazda, or Ormuzd, is the infinite god, the eternal light; a lesser deity Ahriman, the prince of darkness, sometimes looked on as the creator of matter, is in constant conflict with the supreme deity. According to Parseeism, Ahriman is destined to wage war against the light for twelve thousand years and then his kingdom of darkness will be destroyed.
This system permeated various schools of thought and in apostolic days had been widely accepted throughout the Greek and Roman world under the name of Mithraism. Its votaries went everywhere proclaiming it as the great unifying world religion. It was a vast secret society with initiates going from one mystical degree to another until they became experts. This Satanic system trembled before the advancing hosts of Christianity and finally sought to combine certain of its views with a part of the Christian revelation; and as we have seen, a new religion was formed by an eclectic combination of Judaism, Greek philosophy, and oriental mysticism. The new religion divided into many different sects—all unsound in their teaching about Christ, all rejecting the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and substituting the vain speculations of the human mind.
Found in one or another of these sects were imitations of almost every Christian doctrine—with certain accretions and contradictions that made them most dangerous. Years after the apostle John died, Justin Martyr wrote, “Many spirits are abroad in the world and the credentials they display are splendid gifts of mind, eloquence and logic. Christian, look carefully, and ask for the print of the nails.”
All these sects denied the true Christ of God who gave Himself for our sins on the cross of shame. Some, like the docetists, taught that the humanity of Jesus was simply an appearance, unreal and immaterial. The first Epistle of John refutes this teaching in a wonderful way. Another sect, afterward headed up by Cerinthus—the great arch-heretic of the second century who was called by Polycarp “the firstborn of Satan”—taught that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, that He died on the cross to separate Himself from His own sin, and that the Christ (identified with the eternal Spirit) came to Him at His baptism but left Him at the cross. This faction seems to have been on the mind of the apostle Paul and he combated it in a masterly manner.
In all these sects, knowledge was given pre-eminence over faith. Faith, which is confidence in revealed testimony, was repudiated by theorists who professed acquaintance with divine mysteries far beyond that of ordinary people and quite in advance of the Biblical revelation. In their pride and folly they put a great number of spirit-beings known as eons between the soul and the unknowable God. These eons were all classified and given names such as Reason, Wisdom, Power—names reflecting divine attributes. All this appeals to the natural man.
It sounds like humility to say, “In myself I am so utterly ignorant and unworthy that it is not for me to go directly to God the Father or to Christ the Son. I will therefore avail myself of mediating angels and spirits who can present my cause in a more suitable manner than I can myself.” But it is really pride of intellect and the grossest unbelief, for God has declared that there is “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). The truly humble man will be receptive to what God has made known in His Word.
Through the infinite mercy of God the early church triumphed over these Satanic efforts to ally various dying cults and systems with Christianity. The Holy Ghost so clearly exposed them that in one council after another the church repudiated the vile theories that would have made man his own savior. But down through the centuries, from time to time there have been those who have taken up certain elements of these discarded schools of thought and sought to foist their theories on Christians as though they were new and wonderful truths.
Romanism, with its doctrines of justification by works, purgatorial purification after death, and mediating saints and angels, has adopted much that the apostles refused, and palmed it off on credulous dupes as traditional Christianity. Imagine anyone praying to saints and angels or adoring their images when Colossians 2:18 says, “Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he hath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind.” How striking is the contrast between “voluntary humility” and “vainly puffed up”!
I remember trying to reason with a friend of my youth, a very gracious and kindly man who had been brought up from childhood in the Roman communion. Often I sought to show him from the Scriptures the simplicity of the gospel of Christ. When I asked why he prayed to the blessed virgin Mary instead of directly to our Lord Jesus, he answered with an air of the greatest humility, “Oh, I am too sinful, too utterly unworthy, to go directly to our blessed Lord. He is infinitely above me. He is so pure and holy and His majesty is so great that I would not dare to prostrate myself before Him. But I know that no one has as much influence with a son as his mother, and I know too that a pure woman’s tender heart feels for sinners in their sorrows and failures. Therefore I go to the blessed virgin Mary and pour out my heart to her as I would to my own mother; I plead with her to speak for me to her holy, spotless Son. I feel sure that she will influence Him as no one else could.”
This reasoning seems to reflect “lowliness of mind” and humility of spirit (Philippians 2:3), but it is really based on the most subtle kind of pride, for it involves the thought of being wiser than the revealed Word of God. There we read of only one mediator; there we learn that “the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” (1 John 4:14), that He bore “our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24), and that His tender heart was filled with compassion for sinners here on earth. None was too vile or degraded to be invited to come to Him. The worst His enemies could say of Him was, “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (Luke 15:2).
Up yonder in glory He is the same Jesus that He was down here on earth. We may rest assured that “we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin,” and He is “able to succour them that are tempted.” In His name we are bidden to “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15-16).
Since we are assured of Christ’s deep interest in all that concerns us, why should we turn aside to angels or saints, however devoted, or even to His blessed mother herself when we can go directly to Him? He interceded for the transgressors on the cross and now at God’s right hand He “ever liveth to make intercession” for those who trust in Him (Hebrews 7:25).
And so it is not an evidence of humility to say, “I am too unworthy to go to Christ.” Only unbelief would lead one to make such a statement. He stands with arms outstretched, pleading with all who are in trouble or distress, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). What base ingratitude to turn from Him to any other! Christ shows His wounded hands and says, “Peace be unto you” (Luke 24:36). What amazing folly to think it necessary to have anyone speak for me to Him! Only pride and unbelief would put Him at a distance and bring angels in between.
This “voluntary humility and worshipping of angels” is in itself a complete denial of the new creation, for it fails to recognize the wondrous truth that all believers are one body with their exalted Head. And so the apostle warned the Colossians about men “not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God” (2:19). “Holding the Head” is recognizing our link with Him, both in life and by the Spirit. The exalted One at God’s right hand is the source of blessing for all His people on earth. Just as the holy oil poured on Aaron’s head went down to the skirts of his garment (Psalm 133:2), so now from the Head in Heaven blessing comes down in the Spirit’s power to every member of His body on earth.
The body of Christ is not merely a society or an organization. It is far more wonderful. It is a divine organism. Just as all the members of a human body form the complete man, all believers in Christ, through the Spirit’s baptism, form the one new man. (See 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 and Ephesians 2:15.)
If we are out of touch with the Head through failure to comprehend the intimacy of our relationship to Him, or if we put anything or any creature between ourselves and Him, we are not “holding the Head.” Satan knows, as someone has well phrased it, that if he could get the thickness of a sheet of paper between the Head and the body, all life would be destroyed. The life of course can never be destroyed, but it is possible to utterly misunderstand our relationship to the Head and to fail to avail ourselves of the supplies of grace that might be ours if we walked in fellowship with Him; in such a sad condition we would be out of communion with Him and therefore not consciously guided by Him.
From the Head all the body is nourished through the ministry of “joints and bands” placed in the body by the Holy Spirit. Being thus “knit together,” the body grows or increases (Colossians 2:19). This truth is most blessedly expanded and elaborated on in Ephesians 4:11-16. There we see how the risen Lord gave various gifts to His church “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (4:12). Note especially verses 15 and 16, where we are told that He would have us “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”
What a marvelous picture this is and how strikingly does one passage complement the other! Paul’s words in Colossians and Ephesians put responsibility on each one of us as “members of Christ” and “members one of another” (1 Corinthians 6:15; Romans 12:5). There are no useless members in the body of Christ. In the human body every joint, every ligament, every hidden part, has some service to perform for the good of the whole. Even though physicians and surgeons may not yet fully understand the purpose of every gland and organ, and may speak of certain useless parts or of discarded vestiges of earlier forms, we may be sure that God in His infinite wisdom has a use for every part of the body. Likewise in the mystical body of Christ, no believer is useless or without a special gift. Therefore let no member of the body think of himself as having no part in building up the whole.
One term used in 1 Corinthians 12:28 is most suggestive; it is the little word “helps.” Notice how it is sandwiched in between “gifts of healings” and “governments.” We may not all have spectacular gifts, but we can all be helpers. For example the apostle spoke of “helping together by prayer” in 2 Corinthians 1:11. Prayer is a service the feeblest saint can perform for the benefit of the whole body.
If a member of the body of Christ is spiritually healthy, he will function properly for the edification of all. But just as a diseased part becomes a menace to the entire physical body, a Christian who is out of fellowship with God or in a low or carnal state, is a hindrance where he should be a helper. May each one of us be concerned about our responsibility to the body. May we be so focused on our blessed, glorified Head, so careful to see that there is nothing interfering with our communion with Him, that He may be able to use us to provide nourishment and blessing to His people. Then we all can be more “knit together” because of one another’s faith and thus the body will grow.
Let me give some advice to my younger brothers in Christ who seek to preach the gospel or to labor for the edification of believers. Bear in mind that if you are true ministers of Jesus Christ, you will preach the Word and direct the attention of your hearers to the truth of God. Do not, I beg you, indulge in speculation about things not revealed. You are not sent forth to acquaint men with unsubstantiated theories or to fill their minds with philosophical systems. God has entrusted you with His own holy Word and He holds you responsible to declare it in all its clearness and simplicity. One “Thus saith the Lord” is worth a ton of human thoughts and ideas.
Unreliable theological treatises and philosophical discussions never saved one poor sinner or comforted a discouraged saint. It is the truth of God, declared in the power of the Holy Spirit, that alone can accomplish this. To teach anything else is to waste precious time and to dishonor the Lord who sent you out to proclaim His truth. The divinely given message, ministered in the power of the Holy Ghost sent down from Heaven, will awaken the careless, revive those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), give peace to the anxious, comfort the distressed, and sanctify believers.
To substitute the empty dreams of carnal or unregenerate men for the truth of God is the utmost folly. Even in the Old Testament we read, “The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:28).
To add to His Word is to pervert it. Neither tradition, nor the voice of the church, nor imagined superior intellectual illumination can complete that which is already perfect: the revelation of the mind of God in His holy Word. The Bible and the Bible alone is the foundation of our faith.
Carnal Asceticism (Colossians 2:20-23)
The term the flesh is used in two very different senses in the Bible. It is a serious mistake to fail to distinguish between the two. Sometimes the term refers solely to our bodies—as in 2 Corinthians 4:11, “our mortal flesh”—but in the doctrinal parts of the New Testament the term generally refers to the nature that fallen man has inherited from his first father.
“God created man,” we are told, “in his own image… Male and female created he them…and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created” (Genesis 1:27; 5:2). Physically perfect, they were morally innocent and spiritually like God, who is a Spirit and the “Father of spirits” (Hebrews 12:9). But in Genesis 5:3 we read, “Adam.. .begat a son in his own likeness, after his image.” Adam’s children were born after sin had defiled his nature and poisoned the springs of life; and all his descendants now bear this fallen image.
As a result mankind needs regeneration and so our Lord said to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). Jesus was not merely saying that that which is born of the physical body is a physical body; He was saying that the personality which comes into the world through natural procreation and birth has the fallen nature which Adam acquired when he fell. This fallen nature is distinctively referred to as the flesh, the body of the flesh, sin in the flesh, the sin that dwells in us, and as the carnal mind that is “not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). The flesh in this sense is the nature of the old man, the unregenerate natural man. Ephesians 2:3 tells us that “we all…were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.”
When a person is converted, or regenerated, this carnal nature is not altered in the slightest degree; it is never improved or sanctified, either in whole or in part. In the cross of Christ, God has utterly condemned the old nature as too vile for improvement. The believer has received a new nature that is spiritual, the nature of the new man; and he is now responsible to walk in obedience to the Word of God, which appeals only to this new nature. Both the old and the new natures are in the believer and will be until the redemption of the body.
It is true that the flesh, or the old nature, acts through the members of the body, but the body itself is not evil. However, every natural instinct and physical appetite, no matter how perfectly right and proper they may be when used as God intended, can be perverted to serve selfish and dishonorable purposes. So we are called on to “mortify [put to death] the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13) and not to yield our “members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin” (6:13). We are to present our bodies to God so that all their ransomed powers can be used for His service under the controlling power of His Holy Spirit.
Since the Christian is called to a life of self-abnegation, the apostle Paul wrote, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27). But he did not mean that he needlessly punished his physical flesh in order to purify his spirit. He meant that he did not permit unlawful or inordinate physical appetites to dominate him and lead him into excesses that would dishonor his ministry and his Lord. This subjection of the body will always be necessary as long as we are in this world where we face temptations.
First Peter 4:1 tells us, “He that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.” The thought here is not that we obtain deliverance from the power of sin by ascetic practices such as flagellation, fasting, or ignoring physical comfort. Peter meant that we obtain deliverance by refusing to obey carnal impulses that war against the soul while their gratification provides physical pleasure.
Note the contrast between our Lord’s temptation and our own. We read that He “suffered being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18), but we cease from sin if we suffer in the flesh. In other words, temptation caused Him, the holy One, the keenest suffering. His holy nature shrank from the slightest contact with evil—even from Satanic suggestion. But the suggestion of evil may be seductively pleasing to us, fallen as we are, and we must resolutely refuse the thought of sensual pleasure in order to walk in purity before God.
Hebrews 4:15 tells us that the Lord “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” In other words, He was never tempted by an inward desire for sin. He could say, “The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me” (John 14:30). With us it is far otherwise; when temptation comes from without, we are sadly conscious of the fact that we have a traitor within who would open the door of the fortress to the enemy if he were not carefully watched. When the enemy attacks, our hearts must be determined to cleave to the Lord and give no ground to the suggestions of the flesh or the promptings of the adversary.
Someone explained the conflict between the two natures this way: “It seems to me as though two dogs are fighting within me. One is a black dog and he is very savage and very bad. The other is a white dog and he is very gentle and very good, but the black dog fights with him all the time.”
“And which dog wins?” someone else asked.
“Whichever one I say sic him to.”
His laconic reply was well-put, for if the will is on the side of the evil, the flesh will triumph; if the will is subdued by grace and subject to the Holy Spirit, the new nature will have control.
Because they lack understanding of this important truth, many have supposed that they could perfect themselves in holiness by imposing penances and various kinds of suffering on their bodies. Such views came into the church early in its history. The Jewish essenes and the stoic philosophers had accustomed both Jews and Gentiles to the thought that the body in itself is evil and must be subdued if one were to advance in holiness. This asceticism was advocated by certain sects of gnostics, while others went to the opposite extreme and taught that since the spirit alone was important, the body could be used in any way without polluting the soul.
In Colossians 2:20-23 the apostle Paul warned against the folly of seeking holiness through asceticism. He connected ascetic practices with the philosophies alluded to in verse 8, which he designated “the rudiments of the world.” Challenging the believer, who as a new man in Christ has died with Him to his old place and condition in the world, Paul asked, “Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances…after the commandments and doctrines of men?” All these rules and regulations for the subduing of the body are based on the principles of the world. They take for granted that God is still trying to improve the flesh, and this we know is not His purpose.
Through John the Baptist, God said, “The ax is laid unto the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10, italics added). But from the early days of Christianity to modern times, men have used the ax, or the pruning knife, on the fruit of the trees, as though the trees might be improved if the bad fruit were cut off. Men say, “Get people to reform, to sign pledges, to put themselves under rules and regulations, to starve the body, to inflict physical suffering on it, and surely its vile propensities will be annulled if not eliminated. Little by little people will become spiritual and godlike.” Thousands have agreed with the one who said, “Every day, in every way, / I am getting better and better.” But no amount of self-control, no physical suffering whatever can change the carnal mind, which Scripture emphatically calls the flesh.
Saint Jerome lived a lecherous life in his youth, but after he became a Christian he fled from all contact with the gross and vulgar world in which he had once sought to gratify every fleshly desire. He left Rome, wandered to Palestine, and lived in a cave near Bethlehem, where he sought to subdue his carnal nature by fasting almost to starvation. So he was greatly disappointed when, exhausted and weary, he fell asleep and dreamed he was still rioting among the dissolute companions of his godless days.
The flesh cannot be starved into subjection. It cannot be improved by subjecting it to ordinances, whether human or divine. But as we walk in the Spirit and fill our minds with thoughts of the risen Christ, we are delivered from the power of “fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
In the parenthetical portion of Colossians 2:20-23 the apostle gave examples of carnal ordinances: “Touch not; taste not; handle not” (2:21). He was not saying, “Do not touch, taste, or handle these ascetic regulations.” That would be nonsense. He was giving examples of human rules, through obedience to which the ascetic hoped to attain a higher degree of spirituality. Often we hear verse 21 quoted as guidance for Christians, but the apostle’s intention was exactly the opposite. He wanted all such regulations “to perish with the using” (2:22).
Subjection to human rules gives an appearance of wisdom. It is natural to suppose that neglecting or punishing the body would have a tendency to free one from carnal desires, but untold thousands of monks, hermits, and ascetics of all descriptions, have proved that such practices are useless in preventing indulgence of the flesh. When a man shuts himself up in a monastery in order to escape the world, he finds that he has brought the world in with him. If he were to dwell in a cave in the desert in order to subdue the flesh, he would only find that the more the body is weakened and neglected, the more powerful the flesh becomes.
Dr. A. T. Robertson translated the last part of Colossians 2:20 and all of 2:21 as follows: “Why, as though living in the world, do you dogmatize; such as, Touch not; taste not; handle not?” Such rules may be elevated to the importance of dogmas, but they will never enable one to achieve his goal.
A story is told of a man who was anxious to make himself fit to enter the presence of God. Awakened to a sense of the emptiness of a life of worldly pleasure, he fled from the city to the desert and made his home in a cave in the rocks. There he practiced the greatest austerities and hoped through prayer and penance to reach the place where he would be acceptable to God. Hearing of another hermit who was reputed to be very holy and devout, the man took his staff and made a long, wearisome journey across the desert in order to interview him and learn from him how to find peace with God. In answer to the man’s agonized questions the aged hermit said, “Take that staff, that dry rod which is in your hand, and plant it in the desert soil. Water it daily, offering fervent prayers as you do so, and when it bursts into leaf and bloom, you will know that you have made your peace with God.”
Rejoicing that at last he had what seemed like authoritative instruction in regard to this greatest of all ventures, the man hastened back to his cave and planted his rod as he had been told to do. For long weary days, weeks, and months, he faithfully watered the dry stick and prayed for the hour when the token of his acceptance would be given. He continued this routine until at last one day in utter despair and brokenness of spirit, weakened by fasting and sick with longing for the apparently unattainable, he exclaimed bitterly, “It is all no use; I am no better today than I was when I first came to the desert. The fact is, I am just like this dry stick myself. It needs life before there can be leaves and fruit; and I need life, for I am dead in my sins and cannot produce fruit for God.”
And then it seemed as though a voice within said, “At last you have learned the lesson that the old hermit meant to teach you. It is because you are dead and have no strength or power in yourself that you must turn to Christ alone and find life and peace in Him.” And leaving his desert cave, the man went back to the city to find the Word of God and in its sacred pages learn the way of peace.
Let us remember that it is as impossible to obtain holiness by ascetic practices as it is to buy salvation by physical suffering. We are saved in the first place, not through anything we undergo, but through that which our blessed Lord Jesus Christ underwent for us on Calvary’s cross. He who died for our justification now lives for us at God’s right hand, and He is the power that produces holiness in us. By the Holy Spirit He dwells within us and as we yield ourselves to God, He is enabled to live out His wondrous life in us. Does your heart sometimes cry:
Tell me what to do to be pure
In the sight of the all-seeing eyes;
Tell me, is there no thorough cure,
No escape from the sin I despise?
Will my Saviour only pass by,
Only show me how faulty I’ve been?
Will he not attend to my cry?
Can I not at this moment be clean?
(Samuel Horatio Hodges)
Oh, believe me, dear anxious, seeking Christian, you will find holiness in the same Christ in whom you found salvation. As you cease from introspection and look up in faith to Him, you will be transformed into His own glorious image; you will become like Him as you gaze on His wonderful face. There is no other way by which the flesh can be subdued and your life can become one of triumph over the power of sin. Asceticism is but a vain will-o’-the-wisp that, while it promises you victory, will plunge you into the morass of disappointment and defeat. But preoccupation with the risen Christ is the sure way to overcome the lusts of the flesh and to become like Him who said, “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth” (John 17:19).
People said that Jesus was a glutton and a winebibber (Matthew 11:19) because He came not as an ascetic, but as a man among men, entering with them into every sinless experience of human life. He left us an example that we should follow (1 Peter 2:21). He came to sanctify every natural relationship, not to do violence to the affections and feelings that He Himself implanted in the hearts of mankind.