Colossians 2:16-23 Sermon – Relationship Not Ritual

Throughout history, people have gravitated toward religious rituals as a way to draw close to God.

Many in the church have turned to rituals as a way to seek salvation.

In the monastery, Martin Luther was driven to find acceptance with God through works. He wrote: “I tortured myself with prayer, fasting, vigils, and freezing; the frost alone might have killed me.”

Elsewhere he recalled: “When I was a monk, I wearied myself greatly for almost fifteen years with the daily sacrifice, tortured myself with fastings, vigils, prayers, and other very rigorous works. I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works.”

Later Luther would travel to Rome and ascended the Scala Sancta, supposedly the same steps Jesus climbed when he appeared before Pontius Pilate. Luther crawled up on his knees and kissed each step, saying the Lord’s Prayer at every step. When he arrived at the top, he said, “Who knows whether this is true?” It didn’t make him feel any closer to God.

Religion does not bring us to God. And that is what we are going to see in today’s passage.

I. Don’t Live to Please Others

16 – “Let no one pass judgment on you.”

People were starting to influence the Colossian church with their own rules and traditions. They were quick to pass judgment on others. It seems that this group had their own rules-based gospel. They had many rules about what foods to eat, what drinks to drink, what festivals to celebrate, how to keep the Sabbath, and more.

But for them, it wasn’t just a personal preference. It wasn’t just a good habit or a healthy way to live. It was the law. It was their way or the highway. Anyone who didn’t follow their rules was judged lesser, perhaps even unsaved.

That is a lot of pressure. Someone says, “you aren’t saved” if you eat pork or don’t keep the Sabbath or don’t fast a certain way or whatever it is.

How would you react to that? There would be a lot of pressure to conform to that person’s standard because he talks the loudest.

The truth is we face this type of situation often. We probably have 180 or so people here today. How many different opinions does that represent? It’s probably at least double that because we sometimes change our views.

So what does Paul say the Colossians should do in this situation?

He tells them not to let others pass judgment on them. In other words, don’t live to please people. The reason we should not let others pass judgment on us is simple, God is the judge. He is the one to whom we are accountable. He is the one we will have to answer to one day for our choices.

For every decision we make, we should evaluate our motivations. You should ask yourself if you are making a decision because others expect you to or pressure you or because that is what God is calling you to do.

• Are you buying a house because this is the best way to please God by being a good steward or because everyone around you, including your parents-in-law, wants you to?
• Are you pursuing a higher degree because of pressure from family or because you want to please God?
• Are you going to a prayer meeting because you are expected to or because that is what you believe God wants you to do?
• Do you sing loudly during worship to make a joyful noise to God or because your wife looks at you funny if you aren’t singing?

This doesn’t mean that we are to be prideful or lone rangers off doing our own thing without listening to counsel. We should be humble in how we relate to others.

But you should develop your own convictions. If you don’t have a solid root and convictions based on God’s Word, you will be like a leaf floating on a river, going wherever the current pushes it.

Ask your neighbor, “Are you a chameleon?” God doesn’t want us to be a bunch of chameleon Christians, changing our colors to whatever suits the environment. Are you one way around one group and another way around another group, just to fit in and be well liked?

Galatians 1:10 – For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man?

John 12:43 – For they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.

Man-made religion is often about living up to people’s standards which they seek to impose on others. It is wearisome and burdening.

Please God rather than man.

And don’t be quick to judge others.

II. Don’t Subject Yourself to Religious Sounding Rules (Or Rituals) (16)

Colossians 2:16 – Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.

The rebukes targeting the Colossians were not about the gospel. They were not about the divinity of Jesus, repentance, faith, or any core gospel issue. It was about rules and rituals.

Colossians 2:21 – Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.

It appears that they were teaching rules-based salvation. Most likely, they were trying to impose the Old Testament law and everything that comes with that. The law required them to eat kosher food only. They should celebrate the Old Testament festivals. They should keep the Sabbath according to the law.

Paul spent much of his ministry countering this works-based salvation.

Romans 6:14 – You are not under law but under grace.

Many wanted to bring the early New Testament church back under the law and have a hybrid faith + rules salvation.

Paul is adamant that the Colossian church must not submit itself to a ritualistic religion. People already tried that and failed. No one can keep the heavy burden of the law. It is too much for us.

God is not pleased by religious ritual and never has been. He wasn’t pleased when people brought sacrifices with their hearts far from Him. He wasn’t pleased with the rich people who made significant, public offerings to get praise from men.

But a rules-based approach to religion is not just a thing of the past. It is still common today. It is popular for several reasons:

• Satan pushes this agenda as one way to keep people from having a real relationship with Christ.
• It makes sense to people. We like checklists. We like to-do lists. We like achieving things. We want to have a simple and easy-to-understand list of what a good Christian should do. It somehow makes sense to us.
• It appeals to our fallen nature. Some part of our nature thinks that we can make up for our sin, that we can somehow earn salvation. That is pride. We want to rely on ourselves instead of others. Telling people there is nothing you can do to earn salvation turns many away.

Every religion in the world, except for what we learn in the Bible, is about rules. When people make up a religion, they make up lots of rules because it seems to makes sense.

This mentality often creeps into the church. Many unwritten or sometimes written rules are added to Scripture.

Here are some:

• Christians must tithe 10%.
• When the church doors are open, you should be there.
• Men should wear suits and ties to church (we have a rule that speakers should wear ties).
• Women should always wear dresses.
• King James Version is the only version Christians should use.
• Christians should not drink any alcohol.
• Real wine should be used for communion.
• Real wine should not be used for communion.
• Christians should not watch movies.
• You should not dance.
• Christmas is sacred. We should religiously celebrate it.
• Christmas is pagan. We should religiously avoid it.
• Christians should celebrate the Old Testament festivals like Passover, Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Booths, etc.

The list can go on and on. Are these rules good? Are they bad? Most of these are conscience issues, preference issues, or personal conviction issues. None of the rules above are actually listed in Scripture.

You need to come before the Lord and earnestly seek His guidance in forming your own convictions.

Our faith is about a relationship with Jesus, not rituals or rules. Celebrating an Old Testament festival can be very helpful for drawing close to Jesus and seeing Him foreshadowed in those Old Testament events. But we should not be legalistic about it or require others to make the same choice we do.

One believes that Christmas is an excellent way to share the good news with the lost, have a wonderful family time, and remember Christ’s birth. Another person says that it has pagan roots or has become too secular and is better avoided.

Romans 14:4-5 – Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.

The heart of our faith is not about these things. It is not about rules or rituals. Some of these things have their purpose, but they are a means to an end and not an end unto themselves.

The Pharisees were very strict in their external behavior. They were very religious, but for them, it was a performance to demonstrate to those watching how righteous they were when in fact they were far from God.

The text says these are a “shadow of the things to come.”

If you could pick one person from history to meet, who would it be? (Now I know all of you are very spiritual and would say, “Jesus.”) Charles Spurgeon? Alexander the Great?

Imagine that you meet that person. Would you just look at his shadow? Charles Spurgeon says, “Hi, Troy. How are you?” Troy answers, “Sorry, I am busy studying your shadow.”

The shadow shows that the person is real. But the shadow is not the focal point. Instead, it points us to the person behind the shadow.

That is Christ. Religious rituals should point us to Christ. But they are not the main course. They are a means to an end. And the end is a closer relationship with Jesus.

Colossians 2:17 – The substance belongs to Christ.

Don’t focus on the shadow. Focus on the real thing. Christ! Our faith is not about rules. It is not about commands. It is not about rituals or festivals. It is not about going to church. It is not about wearing symbols like a cross or a dove. It is not about baptism or communion. It is not even about heaven or reading the Bible. What is it then?

It is about having a relationship with Christ. If you do all of the rest but have no relationship with Christ, you are missing the whole point and have created your own religion.

The Bible is a way to let us become closer to Christ. Heaven is a place where we can see Christ face to face. Communion is a ritual to remember what Christ has done for us. Christian symbols are reminders of what Christ has done for us. All of these things are a means to an end.

We need a relationship, not a ritual.

III. Don’t be Distracted by the Flashy (18-19)

Colossians 1:18 NASB – 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.

Paul refers to false teachers who want to lead you away from Christ. The prize is having a close relationship with Christ.

Ephesians 5 compares the relationship between Christ and believers to a marriage.

Imagine a man who went to his wedding, and it was spectacular. The cooking was world-class. The cake was ten tiers tall. One of the top bands in the world came to play live music. He rented the Taj Mahal in India for the ceremony. The flowers, food, music, and décor were perfect. But there is one problem. His bride didn’t show up.

This man was defrauded of the prize. No amount of decorations, no matter how pretty, can cover up for the fact that the wedding is meaningless without the bride.

Similarly, we are defrauded when we shift our focus away from Christ to other matters that sound important.

Don’t be distracted by the flashy. Don’t be distracted by things that seem very spiritual. The prize is Christ.

Self-abasement – This is also translated as asceticism.

Definition – Severe self-discipline and avoidance of all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.

It sounds spiritual. This world is evil and fleshly. We should not love the world. So we should deny ourselves.

However, if we are not careful, this can lead to spiritual pride as we follow specific rules hoping to earn favor with God. It can also lead to harming our bodies, which are a temple of the Holy Spirit. The priests of Baal cut themselves, thinking that this would get their god to respond. In the Philippines, every Easter, some people imitate Christ’s crucifixion and are whipped and nailed to a cross.

When anything, in this case self-denial, becomes the focal point, then it defrauds us from the actual prize of a relationship with Christ. It sounds spiritual but brings us further from God and into self-reliance.

Healthy fasting and denying ourselves specific things for a period of time can be helpful when we use that extra time to worship our Lord.

Angels – A preoccupation with angels distracts us from glorifying Christ. Jesus is the center of our faith, not angels.

Visions – There is something flashy and exciting about a vision. Our curiosity attracts us to hidden mysteries. Quite simply, these accounts can be fascinating.

I was looking on Amazon and I found that many of the top books in the Christian genre are “to heaven and back” books. Some have reached number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller’s list. One sold over eleven million copies. These books seem much more popular than Biblical reference books like Bible studies or commentaries.

Are these accounts true or not? I don’t know.

This is what John Piper said on this, “Since I have my Bible, which already tells me what I can know for sure about heaven, and everything in those books I do not know for sure, I don’t credit them with infallibility. Therefore, it is all guesswork, and I don’t find guesswork about heaven helpful.”

We don’t need to ask people who claim to have died and returned what heaven is like or what hell is like. God already has told us what we need to know in His Word. His Word is infallible while other accounts are not. Studying His Word does not require guesswork or speculation. While we should approach these fantastic accounts with a healthy dose of skepticism, we can trust fully in God’s Word.

Paul says that focusing on visions can cause people to be puffed up.

Other similar things include too much focus on dreams or miracles.

God can and does use dreams. We should not put Him in a box. There are many credible accounts of these in Muslim countries.

But we are not to pursue dreams or visions. Nebuchadnezzar and the two Josephs were not seeking a dream when God gave them one. They were carrying out their daily life, and the Lord wanted to reach out to them with a dream, so He did.

It is easy to get distracted by the flashy. Simon the magician desperately wanted the power he saw in Peter to do miracles. Herod wanted to see Jesus, not because of His message, but because he wanted to see a miracle. Jesus wouldn’t do one for him.

Colossians 2:19 – And not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

Paul gives us the key to growth. Visions and dreams and miracles and asceticism do not cause growth. Growth comes from holding fast to the Head. The Head is Christ.

The simple children’s song had it right, “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you will grow, grow, grow.” Don’t use your time seeking after the thrilling and the flashy. Hold fast to Christ. Abide in Him. Set your gaze upon Him. Magnify Him. Depend on Him. Appreciate Him. Testify of Him. Love Him. Obey Him.

We need a relationship, not a vision.

IV. Don’t Practice Man-made Religion (Legalism)

Colossians 2:20-23 – 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— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 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.

What are the elemental spirits of the world?

The context helps give the answer. Paul relates them with “human precepts and teachings,” as well as with “self-made religion.” In Colossians 2:8 he uses the same term and relates them with “philosophy,” “empty deceit,” and “human tradition.”

Colossians 2:8 – 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.

In both of these verses, the elemental spirits of the world are contrasted with Christ. He is the truth. These aren’t. He saves. These don’t.

These elemental spirits promote basic and worldly ideas about religion. In essence, it is worldly religion. There is a demonic power at work behind them as Satan seeks to lead people away from the truth.

The Colossians were in danger of straying from the true gospel, salvation by grace through faith, to works-based religion.

Man-made religions may differ in appearance on the outside, but at their core, they are generally the same. They teach people to do good deeds. Man-made religion provides a system of doing good deeds as a way of earning salvation.

Paul says that these things have the “appearance of wisdom… but have no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” They have no value. Man-made religion cannot give you a new heart. It cannot take away your sin or the consequences of it.

We can easily see these problems in other religions. But how about for Christians? Many Christians think of their faith as a tick-the-boxes checklist. If they can just read the Bible more, go to church more, give more money, and pray more, then they can earn favor with God.

These things do not save. Salvation comes through God’s grace alone. The elemental spirits of the world are contrasted with Christ. We don’t choose both. It is not rules, rituals, and regulations plus Christ. It is just Christ.

He saves us not as a result of works so that no one will boast.

We need a relationship, not a religion

4 Don’ts and One Do. There are an unlimited number of “don’ts.” We just looked at 4. Don’t live to please others. Don’t focus on following a checklist of rules. Don’t be distracted by the flashy. Don’t rely on works and religion for salvation.

There is one “Do.” Do hold fast to the Head. Everything else is a don’t.

V. Conclusion – Hold Fast To The Head

We don’t need a rule. We don’t need a vision. We don’t need religion.

What we need is a relationship with Christ. We are to hold fast to Him. What does that mean?

What does it mean if someone says, “Hold on to your wife. She is a keeper.” It means cultivating your relationship with your spouse, being faithful, and drawing close together. At the same time, don’t have wandering eyes. It means you should treasure your spouse and invest time and energy into improving your relationship.

You improve your relationship with Christ using the same methods you would use to improve your relationship with a person.

• Quality time
o Spend time with Him in the Word (Quality! Quiet. Meditate.)
o Fasting (intentional time focused on Him)
• Communication
o Frequent
o Open
o Honest
o Personal
• Acts of service
o Serve Him
o Serve others (what you have to the least of these you have also done to me)
• Gift-giving – What gift can you give to Him?
• Praise Him to others (Testimony and Evangelism)
• Be appreciative – Thank Him often for His goodness.

And another way we hold fast to the Head is to fix our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). Colossians 2:23 says that the things we have mentioned today are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. You don’t beat temptation by making rules. You beat it by a strong relationship with Christ. You beat it by looking at the cross over and over again.

Ask your neighbor, “what does it mean to be a Christian?”

If they gave a rule such as “go to church” or “pray,” hit them on the head. Ok, don’t do that.

It means to have a relationship with Jesus! My hope from today’s passage is that each of you will have a greater desire to develop a deeper relationship with Jesus and that you will hold fast to Him instead of rules. There is a lot of fluff out there. But the substance is Christ.

In closing, I invite you to bring your notepads or phones. Write down one way you can develop a closer relationship with Jesus this week.

Discussion Questions

• How can you personally develop a deeper relationship with Jesus?
• How can we avoid a rules-based approach to our faith?
• What are some rules that are sometimes added to Scripture? What are your thoughts on these rules?

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