After a week doing the hard theological yards, today is Paul’s practical advice to the little church in Colosse. ‘Therefore…. don’t let these frauds pull you off track!’ might be a candid paraphrase of our text for today. As we’ve observed, the church was struggling with teachers who insisted that the way to grow spiritually was to add lots of things to what they might call ‘basic’ Christian faith. It’s all very well believing in Jesus, but what you really need is a set of rules about diet, about various ways we need to ‘discipline’ our bodies, about observing this festival and that festival… oh, and don’t forget all the other spiritual beings like angels, who need a bit of worship as well as Jesus.
The Christians in Colosse were confused: do we really have to do all this? These teachers certainly seem very persuasive, even intimidating. And the fact that they can have all these rules and proclaim their benefits counts for something, right?
Wrong. Paul begins his demolition of what you might call fake spirituality by describing it as ‘shadow religion’ (v17) – the best you could say about it is that it is old hat, which points to the real deal, which is Jesus. Even worse, it doesn’t work: it might have an appearance of wisdom, but in fact it ‘lacks any value in restraining sensual indulgence’ (v23). Strip away the mask and these teachers are just as driven by their desires (note the similarity with what Jesus says about the Pharisees) – so in fact, all these rules, regulations, and ‘secret insights’ are just a waste of time and energy,
Finally, Paul’s most devastating critique is in v18 – all this kind of secret knowledge is just unspiritual. It is the exact opposite of what it claims to be: far from opening up deeper realms of spiritual life, they are ‘merely human commands and teachings’ which are ‘destined to perish with use’ (v22). And the way to spot that it is fake is what it does to the person who practises them: it makes them arrogant and full of themselves (v18). In other words, far from going deeper into Christ they just go deeper into themselves. That is why it is not spiritual growth, but the opposite.
For those of you who like equations (might be some of you!), you could summarise the whole of this teaching in Colossians like this: ‘Christ plus always equals Christ minus’ i.e. you try to add anything to the (fully complete) work of Christ, all you do is take away from it. Christ is all you need, and the way to grow is to grow deeper into Christ.
In a world where we are constantly bombarded by new techniques and spiritual fads, this is very good news! Give thanks that we have the full riches of Christ at our disposal, and pray for grace to grow into these riches ever more, day by day.