Sunday School Lesson for November 16, 2003


Background Passage: Colossians 2:6-23


Focal Teaching Passage: Colossians 2:16-23


Focus on Christ (2:16-17)


Verse 16

The Colossian believers were in grave danger of being misled and deluded by false teachers who employed “persuasive” arguments in order to lead them away from an utter dependence upon Christ and the apostolic gospel preached by Paul (2:4). In 2:8, the apostle warned his brethren to watch out so as not to be taken prisoner through non-Christian “philosophy and empty deception” and doctrines growing from the “tradition of men” rather than that which is “according to Christ.” One of the components of the heterodox theology being propagated among the Colossian believers had to do with the avoidance of certain foods and beverages as well as the observance of festivals and religious days.  The language Paul employed seems to depict the heretical teaching as some kind of a Jewish aberration involving the ritual observance of certain aspects of the Mosaic Law. At any rate, he warned his brothers and sisters not to allow anyone to “act as your judge” in regard to such things as “food or drink” or “a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” That the false teachers were judging members of the church indicates that they “attempted to enforce regulations in the group which were foreign to the spirit of Christ and unnecessary to Christian faith” [Melick, 267].



The reference to “food or drink” indicated that some of the Old Testament dietary restrictions and laws were being forced on members of the church. The mention of the “Sabbath” and other special days was related to the controversy concerning whether or not believers should worship on Saturday (as did the Jews) and participate in the observance of pagan holidays [Melick, 268].  However, Paul’s exhortation to “let no one act as your judge” in regard to such things provides a strong clue that the apostle believed the application of the Old Testament laws in this way was fundamentally wrong and violated Christian freedom. Paul’s message was that they must steadfastly “resist any pressure to make them conform to legal demands, for the law as an instrument of condemnation has been nailed to the cross” [Carson, 72].


Verse 17

Here, Paul informed his brethren that the food and drink regulations as well as those dealing with Sabbath and festival days were a “mere shadow of what is to come.”  In other words, the Old Testament laws pointed to a greater reality beyond themselves, namely to Christ who is “the substance” behind the shadows and types.  Consequently, the believer in Christ “lives in the era of fulfillment. Hence the ordinances of the law must be viewed, not as abiding realities which are still binding, but rather as types which have found their fulfillment in Christ” [Carson, 72].  Paul’s point in prohibiting such restrictions was that authentic spirituality is not a matter of such observances or ascetic behavior. To deem these laws and strict practices as necessary for fellowship with God “would undermine the work of Jesus” [Melick, 268] and call into question the sufficiency and power of the gospel of God’s grace.


Flee Fanatics (2:18-19)


Verse 18

Paul’s warning regarding the false teachers and their legalistic philosophy continued in this section where he exhorted the brethren to avoid being defrauded of their “prize”—the joy, security, and peace in knowing Christ—by those who delight in “self-abasement and the worship of angels.” Apparently, this rather bizarre, sub-Christian doctrine included the belief that an experience with angels provided the practitioner with a pathway to a deeper level of spirituality. Added to this were various forms of extreme physical discipline and abuse that were designed to curb bodily appetites. Ecstatic “visions” and other highly personalized experiences that allegedly brought the worshipper into closer communion with the divine were also involved.  Yet, Paul made it abundantly clear that this false religion was simply a prideful show of the flesh and that those who embraced such shameful practices were “inflated without cause.”


Verse 19

Having warned his brethren, Paul announced that those who teach and practice this form of false doctrine have been dismembered from the body of Christ. They have not held fast “to the head” which supplies the life and nourishment for the whole body. Any perceived “growth” would only be illusory, devoid of real spiritual vitality, and not the authentic kind “which is from God.” In other words, the beliefs and practices encouraged by the false teachers were also powerless in terms of sanctification as well as justification.


Find Your Freedom (2:20-23)


Verses 20-22

In the spirit of loving pastoral concern, Paul scolded the Colossians for caving in to the illegitimate demands made by the false teachers. He pointedly asked why they had submitted themselves to spiritually worthless “decrees, such as ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’” (v. 21).  Such restrictions were of no value and had no place among those who had not only “died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world” (v. 20), but had been “buried with Him in baptism” and “raised up with Him through faith” (v. 12).  Melick notes that like other similar systems of religion, the one opposed by Paul “substituted the temporal for the eternal, making food and observances the center of its practices. This is both foolish and unnecessary for the Christian” [277].



In verse 22, the apostle made it clear that the things being promoted by the heretics were actually “destined to perish” and merely represented the “commandments and teachings of men.”  Paul’s words, therefore, served as a reminder that those seeking to save themselves and impress others by man-made means actually “belong to this world whereas the believer belongs to eternity. How absurd then to subject [themselves] to material ordinances which have no abiding reality” [Carson, 78].


Verse 23

Far from bringing the believer nearer to God, the false teachings concerning the pathway to salvation and deeper spirituality simply gave the “appearance of wisdom.” The tragic fact was that while such “self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body” made an impressive outward show, they were totally powerless “against fleshly indulgence.” Paul’s clear message was that his Colossian brothers and sisters should not seek spiritual ‘secrets’ to success and victory outside the boundaries of the apostolic gospel and total reliance upon the finished work of Christ.  Rather, they should continue to live Christ-centered lives, living in the same repentant, trusting spirit in which they had previously “received Christ Jesus the Lord” (2:6).



Major Themes for Reflection and Application



One: Salvation is all of ChristCarefully examine verses 6-15 and make a list of everything God has done in Christ to secure your salvation. Hint: Take special note of the personal pronouns “Him” and “He.”




Two: Majoring on minors—In the light of Paul’s clear words in verses 16-17, why do you think so many believers make such a big deal about the non-essentials (for example: whether or not believers should participate in Christmas and other civic and religious holidays; should believers worship only on Sunday; should adult believers drink alcoholic beverages or smoke; should Christians go to movies, dance, etc.)?  Why do we measure or judge one’s (ourselves and others) degree of sanctification (or salvation) by such external standards as food, drink, and outward practices? What are the clear and present dangers of this mentality? How does this actually abuse and misuse the Law and lead us away from dependence upon Christ?  At its heart, is not such ascetic behavior actually a subtle form of worldliness in its own right? Hint: Refer to Galatians 3:24.




Three: The bird in the cage—Look again at verse 20. We might paraphrase Paul’s question like this: “If Christ has accomplished everything needed to save you and set you free, why do you keep acting like a slave by embracing the false idea that what you eat or drink, or what day you worship on, has an impact on your standing before God?”  How can you keep others from “defrauding you of your prize” and begin to enjoy more freedom in Christ?




Four: Freedom and ResponsibilityCarefully examine Romans 14:1-23 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. What principles should govern the Christian’s use and enjoyment of his freedom?




Five:  Life in the war—If a strict and regimented life-style, and even extreme bodily discipline, is of “no value against fleshly indulgence” (v. 23), how do we deal with temptation?