Christ Is the Best Spiritual Program
July 16, 2017 Speaker: Mitchel Kirchmeyer Series: Colossians: "Look Nowhere Else! Christ Is Everything"
Scripture: Colossians 2:16–2:23
Why is Christ the best spiritual program? Because Christ is more real than any other connection. Because Christ is more powerful than any other protection. Because Christ is more transforming than any other change.
Throughout the course of a week, we hear and see many advertisements. Many companies are trying to sell us more than just a product or a skill. They claim that what they are selling can give us something deeper.
Companies like facebook and Apple and Starbucks offer us connection. They aren’t just a website or a phone company or a coffee company. You are getting the connection you always wanted. “If you use this product,” they say, “you will be connected to others in a deeper, more meaningful way.”
Other companies are offering protection. The world is a scary place and you need protection. We all have a deep desire to be safe and secure. So they say, “If you buy this insurance, you will have no worries. We will protect you. If you use this retirement plan, your future will be secure.”
Still other companies are offering change. Most people have something about themselves that they don’t like. Perhaps they have tried to change it for years and have come up short. They need something to help them. So marketers say, “Use this weight loss program and you’ll be the weight you want to be. Use this medicine and you’ll be able to stop smoking. Wear these clothes and you’ll look as cool as you’ve always wanted.”
These marketers are trying to tap into deep desires of humanity in order to sell their product. We all deeply long for meaningful connection. We all desire to be protected - to be safe and secure and to know everything will be alright. We all want change for the better.
Today we are continuing our series in the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. Paul was an early follower of Jesus and he is writing a letter to other followers of Jesus in Colossae because he has heard they are feeling pressure to trust in something besides Jesus. There are a group of people in their city who are telling them they need more than Jesus to experience spiritual fullness. To that, Paul says, “Look Nowhere Else! Christ Is Everything.”
Paul has been reminding them of who Jesus is and what he has done in their lives. Jesus is the hero of their story and they should not succumb to pressure to turn away from him.
These people who are pressuring the Colossians are false teachers. Paul told the Colossians in chapter 2 verse 8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit.” The false teachers are offering them a spiritual program but it is hollow and deceptive. The main issue is that it is not according to Christ. It doesn’t have Christ at its center. In our passage this morning, we hear some details about the spiritual program the false teachers are offering but the details are still pretty sparse. Many scholars have speculated about the exact nature of their spiritual program. The most common view is that it was a mixture of a few different religions. There are some Jewish elements from the Old Testament and there are some elements from pagan religion with the belief that they are many spirits and gods that must be pleased. But even though the details are scarce, we can see what is wrong with this spiritual program based on how Paul explains that Jesus is better.
So the big question we are answering this morning is: Why is Christ the best spiritual program? Why is Christ the best spiritual program?
The passage breaks down into three sections and we get an answer from each section.
Let’s reread the first section - chapter 2 verses 16 through 17.
Because Christ is more real than any other connection (2:16-17).
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. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (2:16-17)
The “therefore” connects this passage to the previous one which was all about how Christ has done spiritual heart surgery on us by uniting us with him in his death and resurrection. These verses are the implications of what Paul has said about our spiritual heart surgery.
Here we discover that the false teachers are passing judgment on the Colossians. They are warning the Colossians that if they do not following their program, then they are at risk of condemnation by God. They are standing above the Colossians and condemning them. The issue with any program that doesn’t have Christ at the center is that it sets up a ladder to climb. If you do these things, you will climb the ladder to whatever it is: to God, to enlightenment, to nirvana. But when you see yourself as climbing a ladder, if you think you are a few steps above others you become arrogant and begin looking down on them and passing judgment on them.
Concerning what do they pass judgment? Paul says: in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. Concerns about food and drink and holy days were prevalent in pagan religion but the mention of Sabbath gives us a clear indication that this comes from the Old Testament. God set up food laws and certain holy days for his people for the purpose of leading them to him. But look what Paul says about these Old Testament rituals in verse 17: “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
The rituals of the Old Testament were good for their time. But they were always a pointer toward something else. They were a sign leading the way. They were leading to Christ. They are a shadow, but Christ is the reality and substance to which they pointed. Now that Christ is here, why would they want to concern themselves with the signs that pointed to him?
My grandma would take a vacation or two every year. She would often go to Arizona to visit her son and daughter there. A couple times she went to Norway. One thing that was always really fun about those trips is she would mail postcards back to my sister and I. We would wait eagerly for them, excitedly anticipating what sort of card she picked out for us and what message she would write to us. Those postcards were a shadow of my grandma. They weren’t really her. But they gave us a connection with her even though she wasn’t with us. It would be odd if when my grandma returned we continued to fixate on the postcards and ignore her. She is more real than the postcards. She is the one with whom we actually want to connect. The false teachers are trying to sell the Colossians postcards when they have the real thing right in front of them. They already have Christ. They don’t need postcards. He is the reality and substance and is present with him.
The big question we are answering is: why is Christ the best spiritual program? The first answer is: Because Christ is more real than any other connection. Because Christ is more real than any other connection.
Rituals and rules are a tricky thing. On the one hand, they can be useful but on the other they can become our God. If you were to ask me: how do I become a Christian? I wouldn’t start by giving you a list of rules and rituals like: come worship with us on Sundays, make sure you celebrate Christmas and Easter, start reading your bible and praying, do good things for people, tell other people about Jesus. That is the wrong place to start. I would tell you: surrender your life to Jesus - know him, love him, and trust him. Then you might ask: well how can I know Jesus? How can I love him? How can I trust him? Then I would say: well you can know Jesus by reading your bible, praying, coming to worship with us. You can love Christ by doing good things for people and telling others about him. Rituals and rules for living are meant to connect us with a person. The problem is that we quickly make relationships mechanical. We just want our to-do list. It's easier and safer that way. I do my thing to make God happy and he will do his thing to make me happy. That's not how relationships work. That’s not a true connection with a person. The “whats” of the Christian life connect us with the “who” of the Christian life.
Know that in Christ you see the clearest picture of God and are most connected with God through him. Not through rituals. He is fully God and if you have trusted in him as your Lord, you are connected with him. You have been united with him in a spiritual union by the Holy spirit. The Holy Spirit lives in you and Jesus promises to never learn or forsake you.
Believe that when you don’t feel connected with God, that you already are because of what he has done. God has bonded us to him by the Holy Spirit. Even when you don’t feel close to him, he is still close to you.
Focus your attention not on what you need to do but on who Jesus is. Any ritual we do is meant to lead us to Christ. When rituals become an end in themselves, that is when we have lost sight of their purpose. Rituals are meant to lead us to God and strengthen our trust in him.
There’s a lot of people in our lives who think the way to get close to God is by following a bunch of rules. Some are trying to follow them. They go to a church service on Sunday and help out when asked, but they have no connection with God. They check the things off the list but don’t really know or love God. Christianity is just another item on the to do list. Then there are people who have rejected God because they think all the religious rituals and rules take too much time or just take their fun away. Wouldn’t it be good news to hear that we can actually have a real relationship with God? That God doesn’t just give us a bunch of things to do but he actually gives us himself? Isn’t it good news that instead of making us climb a ladder up to him, he actually came down the ladder in the person of Jesus so that we could know him? We don’t have to climb the ladder up to God because he climbed down to connect himself with us.
The big question we are answering is: why is Christ the best spiritual program? The first answer is because Christ is more real than any other connection. We get our second answer in chapter 2 verses 18 through 19. Let’s reread those verses.
Because Christ is more powerful than any other protection (2:18-19).
18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 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. (2:18-19)
Again, we see that the false teachers are disqualifying the Colossians. They are condemning and passing judgment on them. Here, we see that their spiritual program involves asceticism. Asceticism is treating the body in a harsh manner through severe self discipline - usually abstaining from eating food or just certain foods. One of the common practices in the region where the city of Colossae was located was to call on angels for help and for protection from evil spirits. Another common practice was to abstain from food in order to have visions. It would seem then that the false teachers were insisting that the Colossians practice severe self-discipline with their body by abstaining from food in order to call on angels for protection and in order to see visions.
Paul says, in verse 18, this has led them to be puffed up without reason. They are prideful and arrogant and for no good reason. Their mind is acting sensuously - they are overly focused on worldly things. The worst part is stated in verse 19: they are not holding fast to the Head. They aren’t holding fast to Jesus Christ. They are trying to hold fast to other things in order to experience God’s protection and presence. But, as verse 19 says, Christ is the one from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
As most of you know, I spent eight months in a residency program to prepare me for starting a new church in Woodstock. The program started off with an orientation retreat in northern Wisconsin to lay a foundation for our eight months together. On one of our days there, we went zip lining. For those of you are not familiar with ziplining, you wear a harness around your body and you climb up onto a platform built high in a tree. Then you attach yourself to a metal cable and jump off the platform. You zip from the platform you are on over to a platform in another tree. While you are standing on these platforms, your harness is attached to something at all times. As we stood high up in these trees, there were no railings to keep us from falling off the edge and we were standing just a few inches from the edge and yet we didn’t have any fear. We would have been terrified if we weren’t hooked to the tree by our safety harnesses. We were still just feet and inches away from danger but we felt no fear and could stand relaxed talking and not even paying attention to the high fall. The Colossians have been harnessed to Christ. They have been holding fast to him. Even though the world is an evil and dangerous place, they are protected. Even though the Colossians have been harnessed to Christ, the false teachers are trying to sell the Colossians pillows to put on the ground for protection so their fall won’t be as bad. But they have the most powerful protection in Christ.
The big question this passage answers is: why is Christ the best spiritual program? The second answer is: Because Christ is more powerful than any other protection. Because Christ is more powerful than any other protection.
Today, sometimes we can try to line the ground with pillows to make ourselves feel better. We think that God is far away or too busy. We are at the bottom of the ladder and he is way up there. So we need to call someone down the ladder to protect us or we need to climb up to him. Perhaps we think there are angels watching over us or that our deceased loved ones are keeping an eye on us from heaven. Or maybe we wear some sort of jewelry or carry something with us that makes us feel protected by God. The bible doesn’t encourage us to look to any of these things. We can look to Christ alone for the most powerful protection. Most often, we can look to ourselves. We think that if we are going to be safe and secure in this world that it is up to us.
Know that in Christ we have the most powerful experience of God’s protection. Jesus is the King of kings and the Lord of lords who has defeated all other spiritual beings. No one is more powerful than him, so he can protect you from any other spiritual power. We don’t need to be afraid of demons or other people or what the future holds. Know that he is present with you because you have been united with him. He lives in you.
When you feel scared and vulnerable, believe that Jesus is more powerful than whatever you are going through. Believe that he is greater and more glorious than any other spiritual power or any other person. When we trust in Christ, we are united with him and our life is hidden with him. No matter what hardships come in life, no matter what others think of us, no matter what evil spiritual beings fight against us, we are totally secure in Christ. We don’t need to line the ground with pillows to soften our fall. Believe that Christ is present with you and protects you.
When you feel scared - scared of being ridiculed for your beliefs, scared of what the future holds, scared of evil spirits - remember that you are harnessed to Christ. Even when you are close to danger, you can be relaxed because Christ is with you and you are secure in him.
The world can be a scary place. Everyone is going to experience loss in their lives: loss of job, loss of home, loss of a friend, loss of a spouse or a child, loss of a business, loss of reputation. People spend their whole lives avoiding pain and loss and discomfort but it is unavoidable. And most people think they will be alone in this scary world. Most people see God as far away and distant. Wouldn’t it be good news for them to hear that even in the midst of the most terrible loss, we can know that Jesus is with us and will never forsake us - that he will carry us through?
The big question we are answering is: why is Christ the best spiritual program? The first answer is because Christ is more real than any other connection. The second answer is because Christ is more powerful than any other protection. We get our third answer in verses 21 through 23. Let’s reread those verses.
Because Christ is more transforming than any other change (2:21-23).
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (2:20-23)
We talked last time about the “elemental spirits of the world” which were spiritual beings connected to the basic materials or elements of the universe. The bible teaches that there are spiritual beings in the world that fight against humanity. Part of the spiritual program the false teachers were advocating involved pleasing these spirits. They had set up a system of regulations which Paul summarizes as - “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch.” Similar to what we have already seen, the false teachers avoid certain food and drink and sometimes abstain from food altogether. In verse 23, Paul calls this “self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body.” They have come up with their own religion that they have chosen for themselves and which they are trying to impose on others and one component of it is pleasing the evil spirits of the world perhaps so they don’t suffer harm from them or so they can grow spiritually.
But Paul asks the Colossians: why would you submit to this sort of slavery if you have died with Christ to pleasing the elemental spirits of the world? At one time - before Epaphras brought the gospel to them - the Colossians probably did try to please these spirits. But now they have heard about Jesus who is above all other spiritual powers and has defeated all of them. When they were united with Christ through faith, they died to these evil spirits - they were severed from their slavery and set free. Why would they once again submit to regulations that seek to please them?
Paul says the spiritual program of the false teachers has an appearance of wisdom - on the surface it may sound wise. But at the end of verse 23 he says, it has no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. In other words, their spiritual program can do nothing to cure the sinful nature that has corrupted our hearts. By telling the Colossians that they have died with Christ, he reminds them that they have gone through the spiritual heart surgery to cure the sinful nature. Remember our passage from last time? Christ was their surgeon and he performed the circumcision of the heart promised in the Old Testament by united them with him in his death and resurrection.
When I was a kid, we had a pond down below our house. My dad had a bunch of sand poured at one end for us to play in. There was a pretty steep slope down into the pond and one of our favorite things to do was to build a big dam. We’d haul clay out of the pond to build the core of the dam. Then we would wet sand and we would pile it up on the clay. Sometimes we would build 2 or 3 foot high dams. Then, we would haul buckets of water out of the pond and pour it down the bank so that it would build up behind the dam. We would pour gallons and gallons of water and the dam would hold it...at least for a while. As soon as the water hit the dam, it would begin eroding the sand. Particles would fall off then chunks. We would try to repair it as it eroded, adding more sand and clay, but it was no use. Eventually the water would break through and all of it would rush out. In our lives, we have a spring of poisonous water constantly pouring from our heart and down the bank into our lives. The false teachers are offering the Colossians sand and mud to dam that poisonous water up but the flow of the spring is constant so it will always break through. Jesus comes and cures the spring of poison and makes it fresh, life-giving water. He solves the problem at its root. He doesn’t offer BandAids but the cure.
The big question this passage answers is: why is Christ the best spiritual program? The third answer is: Because Christ is more transforming than any other change. Because Christ is more transforming than any other change.
The spiritual program the false teachers are offering is one that can’t provide true and lasting change. It doesn’t get to the core - it can’t change our hearts. It is just messing around with things outside of us - food and drink and other spirits. Today, we can quickly focus on modifying our behaviors and cleaning ourselves up on the outside without relying on Jesus to do the deep, inner transforming work. We settle for an appearance of change when we think it is all based on our efforts.
Know that only Jesus can transform us from the inside out. He is the deepest cure for our sinful nature. He doesn’t just give us a bunch of self-help tasks to do for self-improvement to somehow hold back our sinful desires. He actually changes us at the deepest level. He doesn’t just help the symptom and put a bandaid on us, he cures the disease itself. He does spiritual heart surgery on us.
Believe that Jesus is always at work in you and trust in him to change you. Growth in the Christian life often looks less like a straight line constantly going up. It is more of a zigzag line with ups and downs. But because God has begun a good work in us that he is bringing to completion, when we step back and look at the line from the broader perspective we can see that it is going up and to the right.
When you have a need, ask God for help and ask others for help. Invite Jesus into your needs and invite others in as well. Paul says that we need to hold fast to Christ who is our Head, from whom the whole church body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. Growth comes from God through Jesus to whom we are connected. And each of us is connected together as his body and we bring Christ’s growth into each other lives as we support and learn from each other.
Change is something most people want in their lives. Whether it is a situation, a relationship, a job, or themselves, most people are looking for change. When it comes to our relationship with God, we sense that we fall short. There is something not right about us and it needs to change. Many people are trying to clean themselves up for God. They think that they need to improve themselves before they can approach him. Church to them is a group of people who have their acts together. So they are trying to build that dam. There is a constant stream of sin flowing from their heart and they are piling up mud and sand to try and stop it. They see the ladder they need to climb to get to God, but they are stuck fighting against everything that is holding them to the ground that makes them unworthy. Wouldn’t it be good news for them to hear that we don’t need to clean ourselves up for God? Wouldn’t it be good news to hear that we don’t need need to defeat our sin by ourselves and then climb the ladder to God but in fact Jesus climbed down the ladder to defeat our sin? That he died the death we deserve in order to set us from from the penalty and power of our sin? And then he takes us with him up the ladder?
The big question we are answering is: why is Christ the best spiritual program? The first answer is because Christ is more real than any other connection. The second answer is because Christ is more powerful than any other protection. The third answer is because Christ is more transforming than any other change.
Spiritual programs that set up a ladder for us to climb lead either to arrogance, anxiety, or despair. When we think we climb the ladder on our own power, we become arrogant because we think we stand above others. When we think it's up to us to climb the ladder and we are struggling to do it, we become anxious. Or perhaps we just see the ladder and feel despair because we have no hope of climbing it.
The good news is that we don't to climb it because Jesus came down the ladder to save us.