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9. Threats To The Believer’s Freedom In Christ (Colossians 2:16-23)

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“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self–imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:16–23).

What are threats to our freedom as Christians?

The “therefore” in this passage points back to Paul’s teaching on Christ in the previous verses (2:8–15). He warned the believers saying, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” They didn’t need the secular wisdom the Gnostic cult boasted in, because everything they needed was theirs in Christ. In Christ the fullness of God dwells and his fullness dwells in us (v. 10). In Christ we have been circumcised and therefore delivered from the bondage of sin (v. 11). In Christ we have been freed from the burden of guilt and forgiven (vv. 13–14). In Christ we have victory over Satan (v. 15).

John 8:36 says, “He who the son sets free is free indeed.” Yet even though the believer is free, Satan still wants the believer to be in bondage and to miss God’s best for their lives and ministries. Most Christians miss God’s best. They don’t walk in the freedom of Christ, and some may even be pulled away from Christ altogether. Listen to Paul’s warning in this passage: “Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize” (Col. 2:18).

The word “disqualify” is an athletic word used of an umpire declaring that somebody had missed the prize. What is the prize that Christians may be disqualified from? Here, Paul is probably referring to everything that is the believer’s in Christ. This could mean reward in heaven, freedom from sin, or even salvation as they were being tempted to fall away from Christ.

This was not only something that Paul taught others, but it also was his regular discipline. He worked hard to protect himself from being disqualified from the prize. Listen to what he said in 1 Corinthians 9:27: “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” Paul realized it was very possible for him to miss out on God’s best by becoming enslaved to sin or false teaching.

How can we protect ourselves and one another from missing the prize? What are threats to our freedom in Christ? In this passage, Paul gives us three threats we must be aware of if we are going to keep our freedom in Christ.

Big Question: What are the major threats to Christian freedom that Paul emphasizes in this passage? In what ways have you seen these threats enter the church?

Beware Of Teaching That Emphasizes Submission To Old Testament Law

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:16–17).

Here in this text, we see two aspects of the Mosaic Law taught in Colosse. They were being judged about food and days of worship. Both of these were aspects of the law that were taught in the Old Testament for Israel to practice.

When God set the nation of Israel apart to be a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6), he gave many laws to distinguish them from the nations they were surrounded by. Some of the laws that distinguished them were food regulations, such as being forbidden to eat pork and other animals (Lev. 23). They also were called to practice certain days of worship to honor the Lord, such as festival days, new moons, and Sabbaths (Num. 28:11–14).

However, these laws were given specifically to Israel under the Old Covenant and were never given to the Gentiles. The Gentiles were excluded from many things because they were not part of Israel. They could only go into the outer courts of the temple. They could never serve as priests. These roles were set apart for Israel alone.

However, in the New Covenant the restrictions in the Mosaic Law, which separated the Jew and Gentile, have now been abolished. Ephesians teaches that the Jew and Gentile now have become one body and they are no longer under the law. Listen to what Paul said:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace (Eph. 2:13–15).

In Christ’s death he abolished the laws and the commandments that separated both the Jew and the Gentile. Christ is the fulfillment of the law (Matt. 5:17), and in Christ believers are no longer under the Old Covenant code. Romans 6:14 says, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.”

Threat To The Early Church

However, one of the constant threats in the early church was the teaching that commanded both Jew and Gentile to practice the Mosaic Law. This teaching became so widespread that the early church had to have a church council in Jerusalem to settle the argument. All the Christian leaders came together to answer the question, “Do Gentiles need to practice the law?” Look at the conclusion to this in Acts 15:19–20:

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

In reply to the question of whether Gentiles needed to practice the law, James the brother of Jesus, who had become the leader of the Jerusalem church, decided they did not need to.

However, this did not stop the attacks on the early church to practice the Jewish law. The primary emphasis in the book of Galatians was calling them to not follow the OT law. Look at what Paul said in Galatians 4:9–10:

But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!

They were now practicing special days, months, seasons, and years. Paul says, “Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?”

Similarly, the church of Philippi was being attacked by people who taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation. Paul said this in Philippians 3:2–3:

Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.

Paul tells them to be careful of those mutilators of the flesh, those who taught circumcision as a way to be righteous with God. He essentially said, “Be careful, lest you lose your freedom.”

However, the worst case in the New Testament is probably in the book of Hebrews. The Hebrew Christians were being infested by legalists who were calling them back to the Old Covenant completely. The book of Hebrews was written as an apologetic. The arguments throughout the book contend that Christ is better than Moses. Christ is better than angels. Christ is a better high priest because he does not die. The blood of Christ is better than the blood of sheep and goats. He gives them a grave warning about not turning back because there would be no remission for sins (Heb. 6:4–8). He challenges them to not fall into apostasy.

The legalism of the Old Testament law was a tremendous threat to the early church, and even though we have letter after letter calling us to freedom in Christ, slavery to the Old Testament law is still a threat to the church today. I remember in undergrad, one of my friends started to be mentored by someone who taught believers were still under the Sabbath day regulation and that it should be practiced weekly. One time, online, I was befriended by a brother on a Christian website. Soon after initiating our friendship he began to tell me if I practiced worship on Sunday then I had accepted the “mark of the beast” in Revelation 13 and was therefore outside the covenant of God. We see these types of regulations in Seventh Day Adventist churches and some Messianic Jewish churches.

There seems to be a renaissance in the church of being called to practice Old Testament law, including the Sabbath day. What the church was attacked by back then is still attacking us today. Listen to the reason that Paul said we should not practice the Old Testament law: “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col. 2:17). He said they were only shadows and pictures of Christ, and therefore, we are no longer bound to them because Christ has come.

Interpretation Question: What are some ways that we see these shadows in the Old Testament?

1. The Sacrificial Lamb Was A Picture Of Christ.

In the OT, they would offer a lamb for the sins of Israel, but that lamb was just a symbol of Christ and therefore could never remove sins. One day, Christ approached John the Baptist and John said, “Behold the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). The sacrificial lamb was always a picture of Christ.

2. The Manna From Heaven Was A Picture Of Christ.

Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world (John 6:49–51).

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven” (John 6:51). The manna given to Israel in the wilderness was a picture—a type—of how God would send someone from heaven to satisfy the emptiness of man.

3. The Passover Festival Was A Picture Of Christ.

The nation of Israel practiced the Passover in remembrance of how God passed over Israel and judged Egypt instead. During the original Passover, they sacrificed a lamb and wiped the blood on the doorpost so the Angel of the Lord would pass over them. They also got rid of all the yeast in their house. However, look at what Paul said about this festival:

Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:7–8).

In the Old Testament, Israel practiced the Passover once a year, but figuratively we practice it every day. As we repent of sin and remove it from our lives, we are like the Jews getting rid of the yeast. Christ, our sacrificial lamb, died so that God’s wrath would pass over us and as an act of faith in him, we daily seek to get rid of our yeast—our sin. The Old Testament law was just a shadow of Christ.

4. Israel Was A Picture Of Christ.

In the Gospels, Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea saying, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.” Matthew 2:15 says, “Where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”

This initially looks like a prophecy of Christ fulfilled, but as we look at the original context in Hosea 11:1, we find that it is not. Look at what it says: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”

Hosea originally spoke about God calling Israel out of Egypt, but Matthew uses it in reference to Jesus, when his family fled to Egypt to protect him from Herod. This wasn’t a prophecy at all; it was typology. Matthew was saying that Israel is an Old Testament shadow of Christ.

Matthew essentially says when you saw Israel, you saw a picture of the Son. The Son went to Egypt when Herod was seeking to kill him, just as Israel went to Egypt during the famine. The Son went into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days just as Israel went into the wilderness for forty years. The Son is a light unto the world and a blessing to all nations as Israel was supposed to be. Israel is a picture of Christ.

In fact, when you read the Servant Songs in Isaiah (Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and 53) in speaking about the suffering servant, many of the references have baffled scholars. Is he talking about Israel or the messiah? Isaiah 53 is clearly talking about the messiah, but many of the other ones seem to be talking about both Christ and Israel. This is because Israel is a reflection of Christ.

Christ completely fulfilled the law and the Christian is no longer under it. Christ not only fulfilled it by his righteous life, but also by fulfilling the types—the pictures—that were given to represent his coming. When Christ came to the earth, died, and was resurrected, there was no longer any need for the pictures. The reality had come.

Division On The Application Of Law

It should be noted, Christians are divided on the application of Old Testament law to the Christian life. Some have divided the OT law as ceremonial, civil, and moral. They would say only the ceremonial and civil law were fulfilled in Christ, but not the moral law. Others believe the whole OT law was fulfilled in Christ. This is the view I tend to lean toward. Even the Ten Commandments (the moral law) were fulfilled in Christ. Let me give you one of the texts that supports this:

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory (2 Cor. 3:7–11 ESV).

What part of the law was carved in stone? That was the moral law, the Ten Commandments. Paul says it came to end, or as the NIV says, it was transitory. Christ fulfilled the whole law, not only the civil and ceremonial aspects of it. It also should be noted that even though divisions such as civil, ceremonial, and moral may be helpful for us in understanding the law, for the Jew it was all the same. To break one part of the law was to break the whole law (James 2:10). They had no division. So when Scripture says Christ fulfilled the law in Matthew 5:17 and he abolished the law in Ephesians 2:15, it is referring to the whole law.

Application Question: Does this mean Christians are not under any law or commands in Scripture and therefore are free to do what they want because they are saved?

Absolutely not. Listen to how Paul talked about the law: “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law” (1 Cor. 9:21).

Paul declared that he was not under the OT law, but was now under the law of Christ. This means his submission was to the teachings of Christ and his apostles as expressed in the New Testament. Some have dealt with it this way: if an OT law is not repeated in the New Testament then we are not under it.

Even though we are not under the Ten Commandments, those truths are still operative under Christ because they are repeated in the New Testament with the exception of the Sabbath day. Here is a good picture of this: the U.S. and Korea have many of the same laws. Do not steal. Do not murder. However, if I steal something while I am in Korea, will I be prosecuted under American law or Korean law? I will be prosecuted under Korean law because I live in Korea.

It’s the same law, but I am under a different jurisdiction. When believers died in Christ, we died to the law as Christ did. He fulfilled it and delivered me from it by dying for me. Therefore, I am no longer under that law. What happened to Christ happened to me.

In Romans 7:1–4, Paul uses the illustration of marriage to explain this. If a woman is married to a man and he dies, she is free to marry another. Look at what Paul says: “So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God” (Rom. 7:4).

We are now married to Christ and not the law. We are under another jurisdiction. Like Paul said, we are now under the law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21), which includes such things as “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul.” It includes “love your neighbor as yourself.” It includes everything Christ taught and his apostles taught.

This is the very reason we are not under the Sabbath law. Christ died to the law, fulfilled it, and is no longer subject to it, as he is seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenlies (Eph. 1:20). We died with him to the law because we are in him—married to him—and we are seated with him in the heavenlies (Eph. 2:6). Therefore in Christ, we are no longer under the law, which includes the Sabbath regulation. The Sabbath was simply a shadow of our husband—Christ—who has come. He is the eternal rest that the Sabbath always pictured (Matt. 11:28–29). To continue to submit to the pictures of Christ is like a wife being enamored with her husband’s shadow while her husband is right next to her.

With all this said, many would still try to call us back to the shadows instead of focusing on Christ. Because practicing the Sabbath day is still strongly advocated by some groups, we will look at further Scriptural support for why the believer is not under this law. Here are ten reasons given by John MacArthur:

Contrary to the claims of some today, Christians are not required to worship on the Sabbath day. It, like the other Old Covenant holy days Paul mentions, is not binding under the New Covenant. There is convincing evidence for that in Scripture. First, the Sabbath was the sign to Israel of the Old Covenant (Ex. 31:16–17; Neh. 9:14; Ezek. 20:12). Because we are now under the New Covenant (Heb. 8), we are no longer required to keep the sign of the Old Covenant.

Second, the New Testament nowhere commands Christians to observe the Sabbath.

Third, in our only glimpse of an early church worship service in the New Testament, we find the church meeting on Sunday, the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

Fourth, we find no hint in the Old Testament that God expected the Gentile nations to observe the Sabbath, nor are they ever condemned for failing to do so. That is certainly strange if He expected all peoples to observe the Sabbath.

Fifth, there is no evidence of anyone’s keeping the Sabbath before the time of Moses, nor are there any commands to keep the Sabbath before the giving of the law at Mount Sinai.

Sixth, the Jerusalem Council did not impose Sabbath keeping on the Gentile believers (Acts 15).

Seventh, Paul warned the Gentiles about many different sins in his epistles, but never about breaking the Sabbath.

Eighth, Paul rebuked the Galatians for thinking God expected them to observe special days (including the Sabbath) (Gal. 4:10–11).

Ninth, Paul taught that keeping the Sabbath was a matter of Christian liberty (Rom. 14:5).

Tenth, the early church Fathers, from Ignatius to Augustine, taught that the Old Testament Sabbath had been abolished and that the first day of the week (Sunday) was the day when Christians should meet for worship. That disproves the claim of some that Sunday worship was not instituted until the fourth century.1

Application Question: What are the purposes of the Old Testament law today?

Paul said, “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly” (1 Tim. 1:8). If it is still good, then how can we apply it? The OT law applies in many ways to the church today. We will look at a few.

1. The Old Testament Law Reflects God’s Character.

We should study the OT law to better know God. Though his commands to men may change, his character never does. We see his grace, loving-kindness, wrath, holiness and many other characteristics displayed throughout the Old Testament and specifically through the law. If we are going to know God we must study his commands in the OT law.

2. The Old Testament Law Convicts And Reveals Our Need For Christ.

Paul said, “We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers” (1 Tim. 1:9).

In what way is Old Testament law not for the righteous but for sinners? It shows sinners their sin and their inability to follow God’s law. It reveals their need for the Savior. Listen to Galatians 3:24–25: “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” The law was a tutor to bring us unto Christ. Our inability to keep the law shows us our need for him.

3. The Old Testament Law Gives Universal Principles To Be Applied To Our Lives.

Listen to how Paul handles the law in 1 Corinthians 9:8–11:

Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?

Paul takes a law about allowing an ox to eat while working in the field and says this principle is true for ministers who serve in the church. They are worthy to receive pay and other material blessing as they serve us in the Lord. This is a universal principle that can be applied to a church, business, etc. The Old Testament law, as all of Scripture, trains the man of God for all righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16–17), though we are not under it as a covenant with God.

Paul says be careful and be aware of any teaching that calls us back into the Old Covenant. This attack was pervasive in the early church, and it is still here today. Let no one take you captive by it.

Application Question: In what ways have you seen or experienced people being judged and called to go back to the Old Testament law in the contemporary church?

Be Careful Of Teachings That Emphasize The Authority Of Spiritual Experiences

“Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (Col. 2:18–19).

Observation Question: In verses 2:18–19, what is the problem Paul is warning the Colossians against?

What is the second threat Paul is warning the Colossian church about?

Paul tells them to be careful with people who delight in false humility and the worship of angels. It seems that these Gnostic teachers were going into great detail about their experiences with angels or spirits.

Is there anything wrong with angelic experiences? An angel informed Mary she would give birth to the messiah. Daniel was given great prophesies about Israel through an angel. Even Moses received the law through angels.

What was the problem with these experiences? We can discern by what Paul says in verse 19, “He has lost connection with the Head.” These teachers claimed their authority from these visions or experiences with angels.

We must be very careful of this. They followed angels and not the Head, Christ. The primary way we keep our connection with the Head is through his Word. Listen to what Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:16–17: “All Scripture is God–breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

The Scripture equips the man of God for every good work. Theologians call this the sufficiency of Scripture. This doesn’t mean God will never give someone a vision or an experience, but the validity and authority of this experience will come through the Word of God and not from the experience itself.

We must be very careful of those who claim authority through experience and not the revelation of Scripture. Many cults and false religions were started by those who claimed revelation through angels or visions. Mormonism was started based on Joseph Smith’s experience with an angel. The Koran came from Muhammad’s experience with an angel. In fact, Paul warns about this in Galatians:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Gal. 1:8–9).

Interpretation Question: What was the exact experience that the Colossians were having with these angels, and in what ways have we seen this in contemporary Christianity?

What types of experiences were the Gnostics claiming? We cannot be sure, but we do have clues in the text. Paul says they had “false humility.” The Gnostics believed in many intermediaries between man and God, and Christ was just one of them.

Therefore, when Paul says “false humility,” he may have been talking about their claim to be unworthy to go to God on their own and that they needed angelic intermediaries to reach him. They claimed these experiences should be normative and were necessary for everybody.

This has shown up in many forms throughout the centuries. The clearest form is seen in the Catholic Church, where people can go to God through other saints who have died. Because they are unworthy to approach God, they go through Mary, Paul, John, or other saints who can pray for them.

This contradicts Scripture. First Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Jesus said we should pray to the Father in his name (John 14:14). This, in part, means to pray through him. He is the only intermediary between us and God, and we do not need any other person or spirit. Paul is arguing that Christ is sufficient. He is all we need. Listen to what the writer of Hebrews said:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Heb. 4:15–16).

The writer of Hebrews essentially says, “He is enough. Go to the Father with boldness. Christ is enough. You don’t need anybody else. He is the perfect intermediary.” We must be aware of this as other teachings arise declaring we need this prophet to reach God, or we need this experience to reach God, and that these people or experiences are the only way. No, Christ is enough. In Christ the fullness of God dwells and in us we have his fullness (Col. 2:9–10). We have everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).

Another way this is seen in contemporary Christianity is by the hyper–spirituality in some charismatic circles. Even though I personally believe Scripture nowhere forbids the possibility of God still giving visions or prophecy, these experiences do not have the authority of Scripture, and they should not be exalted as such.

Often in the charismatic movement people come to church seeking prophecy or visions from other people instead of seeking Gods will through the Word. Again, they have lost connection to the Head.

Sometimes, the charismatic church can be very weak in Scripture because they are focusing on visions and experiences. When this happens, the church becomes very immature and weak because we only grow by being connected to the Head, which is primarily done through the Word of God (cf. 1 Peter 2:2; Eph. 4:15).

I went to one charismatic church where the pastor preached a prophecy that was given to the church on the previous Sunday. The sermon was an exegesis on another person’s prophetic word. When the Word of God is demoted below any other form of revelation or even made equal, we have lost connection to the Head.

I am not saying that God will never use prophesies or visions from angels, but I am saying they are fallible and must be tested by Scripture to make sure they line up with the Head. John said, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

Application Question: How can we test prophecy and experiences to see if they are from God?

1. Prophecy And Experiences Must Be Tested Through Scripture.

Again, God will never speak a word that disagrees with Scripture, and therefore visions must always be tested by it. If they disagree with the teaching of God’s Word, they must be thrown away. In 1 Corinthians 12:3, people were standing up in church and saying, “Jesus Christ was accursed.” Paul rejects these prophecies, saying that they were not from the Holy Spirit. He said, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Why? How did he know this was not a new word from heaven? Easy. It contradicted Scripture. The Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, and his work will never contradict it. He was given to bring glory to Christ (cf. John 16:14), and he even enables us to do so.

2. Prophecy And Experiences Must Be Tested By The Church Community.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul teaches that when a prophecy is given in the church, it should be tested by the church. Listen to what he says: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Cor. 14:29).

The word “weigh” can be translated “judge.” The church was supposed to judge the prophecy and not just accept it. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and they will not follow the voice of another” (John 10:4–5). We must test the prophecy by what the other sheep are discerning. This is a practical way to discern God’s will in areas that are not clearly expressed in Scripture. Proverbs 11:14 says, “There is safety in the multitude of counselors,” or it can be translated, “There is victory in the multitude of counselors.”

God will often help us confirm through the counsel of mature believers.

3. Prophecy And Experiences Must Be Tested By What God Has Been Doing In Our Hearts.

Again in 1 Corinthians 14, one could discern that God was speaking through the prophecy because the secrets of his heart were revealed. Listen to what Paul said:

But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, God is really among you!’ (1 Cor. 14:24–25).

The word given was confirmed by what was happening in the person’s heart. Philippians 2:13 says, “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

Many times we discern God’s voice by what he is already doing in our hearts. Paul says God works in us to “will.” He is working in us to give us his desires and many times this will be one of the ways we have confirmation.

Sometimes this confirmation of the heart will come through peace. Colossians 3:15 says, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” The word “rule” actually is an athletic word used of an umpire. The umpire tells us what is safe. It can also be translated as let the peace of Christ “decide.” Many times God will give us peace in the process of discerning his will. We test prophecy and experiences by what God is already doing in our hearts.

4. Prophecy And Experiences Many Times Must Be Tested By Waiting To See If They Come True.

Look at what Moses taught about prophecies:

If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him (Deut. 18:22).

Sometimes the only way to determine if the prophecy is of God is to wait and see. God told Israel they would know if the prophecy was of him by whether it came true or not. Sometimes we may receive words of prophecy or knowledge from others, and the only thing we can do is write them down and see if they come true or not. Again, we must remember that God’s Word is our ultimate test of a prophecy or experience.

The Colossian cult was exalting experience over the Word of God and therefore had lost connection to the Head. Be careful of any teaching that exalts one person’s experience or calls us to seek experience over God’s Word. These ministries have lost connection to the Head and will ultimately bring believers under a bondage to something other than Christ.

Application Question: In what ways have you seen the abuse of prophecy or spiritual experiences in the church? In what ways have you been blessed by prophecy or spiritual experiences? How did you test them?

Be Careful Of Teachings That Emphasize Legalism

“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self–imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:20–23).

What’s the next warning that Paul gave us? He essentially calls believers to beware of legalism: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’” Legalism is an emphasis on man–made laws or commands not given by God in Scripture or through God in our personal relationship with him. Most commentators seem to recognize this as an emphasis on asceticism, which is a rigorous discipline of the body in order to please God.

It must be noted, Scripture does teach we should discipline our bodies. Paul said this:

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (1 Cor. 9:25–27).

Paul said he “beat” his body. Every believer should practice this type of discipline in order to be holy and pursue Christ. Paul essentially says the discipline of a competitive athlete should be the discipline of every believer in order to pursue the prize of Christ. He told Timothy to discipline himself unto godliness (1 Tim. 4:7).

Legalism Is Demonically Inspired

However, the ascetics went further than this; they focused primarily on “human commands and teachings” (v. 22). Paul said these commands were based on “the basic principles of this world” (v. 20). He is either saying that these commands are very rudimentary, as the word for “basic principles” was used of the letters in the alphabet. These commands were no different than any other religion with basic rules and commands; they had no power. Or, it can be translated basic or “elemental spirits,” meaning these teachings were inspired by demons (v. 20 ESV).

We probably get a good picture of the first demonically inspired legalism from Satan’s temptation of Eve. Look at what he said to her in Genesis 3:1: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Satan said that Adam and Eve could not eat of “any tree” when God had only forbidden to eat from one tree. He added to God’s laws in order to make God appear strict and domineering. This legalism obviously was used to ultimately push Eve away from God and into sin. Legalism is inspired by the devil.

Paul said demons would inspire many legalistic teachings in the end times. Look at what he said:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth (1 Tim. 4:1–3).

Paul said the last days would be full of demonically inspired legalism taught by men. He said some would forbid marriage and some would forbid certain foods. We must be aware of this. Satan is still adding to Scripture today, putting people in bondage to laws that have not come from God.

Legalism: Throughout History And Today

In fact we have seen this legalism throughout the history of Christianity. In the middle ages, in order to follow Christ, people were commanded to take vows of poverty and singleness and go into monasteries to serve the Lord, secluded away from the temptations of the world.

It should be noted that these can be very good disciplines. Christ called his disciples to leave everything to follow him; they gave up careers and had traveling ministries that depended on the support of others. He called the rich man to leave all to follow him (Matt. 19).

However, Scripture also teaches that many believers were rich. Abraham was wealthy. Joseph was wealthy. David was wealthy. God is not so much worried about whether a person has money, but whether money has them. It is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10), not having money itself.

God has called many missionaries to leave home, family, and job to serve him. However, it becomes legalism when the entire church is commanded to do so.

It is the same with singleness. Paul clearly teaches in 1 Corinthians 7, singleness is a gift that can be very beneficial to the church. However, it is legalism when all people, or all men who minister, are commanded to be single, as seen in Catholic doctrine. This would be a teaching of man, not God. It would be demonically inspired legalism.

We have seen legalism creep into many churches, and we should be careful of this. I was raised in a church where women could not wear pants and Christians were challenged to not go to movie theaters. Is it possible for God to convict some women to not wear pants to protect their brothers from stumbling? Certainly, and praise God for women with such a sensitivity. However, when the church teaches all women should not wear pants, then this becomes legalism.

Legalism is the practice of man–made laws to make a person acceptable to God. It does not include commandments in the Scripture. Many Christians want to call all commands in Scripture legalism. The pastor says, “Read your Bible.” They say, “Stop being so legalistic.” The preacher says, “Don’t get drunk.” They say, “Who are you to judge?” Listen, Scripture has called Christians to be holy and different, and many commands are explicitly clear. But Scripture also calls for people to have a personal relationship with God, which means that God may give us different convictions than he gives others. He does this because he knows our hearts and our weaknesses, which may be different than others.

Remember what Paul taught in Romans 14:2, 5–6:

One mans faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables . . . . One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.

Scripture allows liberty in areas where God has not given commands. However, Scripture does give us one law that we must obey in all our liberties and that is the law of love (cf. Rom. 14:15; Luke 10:27). If our liberties could cause others to stumble, then we should give them up. Paul said, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall” (Rom. 14:21).

Application Question: What happens to individuals or churches that promote legalism?

1. Legalism Tends To Make People Prideful.

Legalism, as with all other aspects of religion, is a work of the flesh that will create pride. Therefore, legalistic churches or ministries will often be full of prideful people. Like the Pharisees who had many man–made laws, they will be prone to boasting and false humility (cf. Luke 18:11–12).

2. Legalism Tends To Make People Judgmental.

Since legalism creates pride, it tends to make people judge one another. Churches that practice legalism are typically very divisive churches. This was true of the Galatian church, which was practicing the legalism of the Mosaic Law. Paul said, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Gal. 5:15).

3. Legalism Tends To Push People Away From Christ.

Legalism makes people focus on man–made laws as a measure of spirituality instead of intimacy with Christ. It is easier for a person to keep a bunch of laws instead of drawing near to God and hearing his voice. Legalism is a substitute for a relationship with God.

Also, because God does not give grace to follow man–made laws, people will commonly fall away from their faith. We often see this with the youth as they grow up. They find that this legalistic faith only brings them condemnation or makes them very judgmental people; therefore, it ultimately leads them further away from Christ and his church.

Interpretation Question: What are secrets to not being taken captive by legalistic teachings?

1. Recognize The Freedom In Our Relationship With Christ.

Paul says that the secret is to be focused on our relationship with Christ and what he has done for us. Listen to what he says: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules” (Col. 2:20).

Paul says you must realize that you died with Christ, and therefore you are not bound to live by these man–made rules. You are in Christ and under Christ’s leadership, not man’s.

2. Recognize That Man–Made Regulations Have No Real Power.

Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self–imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Col. 2:23).

There is no power in a church, ministry, or person that is focusing on regulations instead of a relationship with Christ. It is only through abiding in Christ that we produce fruit (John 15:5). Legalism draws us away from the vine from which all fruit grows.

3. Recognize When Certain Teachings Have Gone Beyond What Is Written.

Listen to what Paul taught:

Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, ‘Do not go beyond what is written.’ Then you will not take pride in one man over against another (1 Cor. 4:6).

Scripture is our guard against legalism. We must be careful not to go beyond what is written. This does not forbid coming to a personal conviction on matters not clearly forbidden in Scripture. However, it should keep us from commanding others to practice it, as was happening in the Colossian church. In areas where Scripture does not forbid there is liberty. We should not judge others based on our convictions (cf. Rom. 14:5–7; 10–13).

Paul calls us to be careful of teachings that emphasize legalism because of our new relationship to Christ. Legalism enslaves and separates us from our true master, Jesus Christ, and it also brings division among his people. Because of our death with Christ, do not become enslaved again to the world and its rules. We no longer belong to the world and therefore must maintain our freedom in Christ (v. 20).

Application Question: How would you define legalism? In what ways have you seen or experienced legalism in the church? What personal convictions has God given you? How can we protect ourselves from judging others based on our personal convictions?

Conclusion

What are common threats to the Christian’s freedom in Christ?

1. Be Careful Of Teachings That Emphasize The Practice Of The Mosaic Law.

They will command that Sabbaths, festivals, and food laws be practiced. Scripture teaches this as a matter of preference and not a command (Rom. 14). Christ freed us from the law, nailing it to the cross. These were just shadows fulfilled in Christ.

2. Be Careful Of Teachings That Emphasize The Authority Of Spiritual Experiences Over Christ’s Word.

The Gnostics were emphasizing their experiences with angels and spirits. Paul said they had lost connection with the Head; they had the wrong authority in their lives. Many Christians are experience seekers: they are seeking prophecy or seeking to be zapped by “the Spirit” instead of seeking Christ through his Word. Because they are experience seekers, often the enemy counterfeits these experiences and leads them astray. Let the Word of God be the final say on every experience. He has given the Scripture to equip us for all righteousness (2 Tim. 3:17).

3. Be Careful Of Teachings That Emphasize Legalism.

Legalism is demonically inspired, man–made laws given as a measure of spirituality. You can’t wear this, can’t do that, and can’t go to this place. Where Scripture is silent, we must be very careful of supplementing with a command. We must let the Holy Spirit guide his people in righteousness as we teach the Word of God. Satan was the first to use legalism with the intention of pushing Adam and Eve away from God. In seeking to love and protect people by giving them man–made laws, we might end up pushing them away from God and others instead. We can trust that God’s Word and the work of the Holy Spirit are sufficient.

Christ has made us free in him. Therefore, we must be aware of common threats used by the enemy to enslave us, such as abuse of the OT law, spiritualism, and legalism. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

Application Question: What stood out to you the most in this lesson about the spiritual threats to the believer’s freedom? How is Christ calling you to protect yourself or others?

Copyright © 2015 Gregory Brown


1 J. F. MacArthur Jr., MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Colossians. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 112-115.

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