COLOSSIANS #21: EYES ON THE PRIZE

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Colossians #21. Colossians 2:18-19

We are continuing from last time. Paul set the stage by telling us to continue to walk in Jesus in the same way we received him: that is, by grace, through faith, not trusting in our own goodness or good works, but trusting Jesus to be enough. He reassures us that we have all the fullness of Christ living inside of us, and in Christ is the fullness of God. Then he again reassures us, telling us that through grace, by faith, we were buried with Christ in baptism, and raised to new life. Our sins have been nailed to the cross of Christ, and so have all the judgments that were against us.

Remember that last time we talked about the picture of a road: the good, safe road is love for Jesus, and through Jesus, love for others. On one side is the ditch of legalism, and the other, lawlessness. In our verses today, Paul is continuing to warn about legalism.

Last time we considered Paul’s exhortation to not let anyone judge us for things that are neither commanded, nor forbidden, by Christ or his apostles. These sorts of things include worship ceremonies, food and drink, church festivals, the day of the week that we worship, and so on. Now, Paul continues his exhortation:

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.(Colossians 2:18-19)

In verse 16, Paul says, “let no one pass judgment on you.” Now he says, “Let no one disqualify you.” There is a difference in the two. I think it’s worth thinking about. Last time we talked about judging and being judged for things that don’t matter. Now Paul is taking this attitude: You already have the prize: Jesus Christ. Everything you need is found in that prize. Therefore, don’t let anyone suggest you don’t have all that you need already to be a Christian. Don’t let anyone put doubt in your mind about whether or not you’ve been given the prize. Don’t let anyone shake you loose from the prize that you already have.

Paul talks about a certain kind of person who might try to say that you have been disqualified. This is someone who insists upon false humility. The NIV translates the Greek this way, while other versions use “asceticism,” but I think false humility captures the sense of it.

This is a tricky one, because true humility is an important part of following Jesus. Just as Jesus knew who he was, yet felt no need to rub the noses of others in it, so we should be the same. We don’t need to insist on our own way, even if we know we are right. We don’t need to insist on receiving the honor that we might rightly deserve. We should delight in honoring others, even if we don’t get the honor we think we should have. We don’t have to pretend to be less intelligent, or weaker, or less attractive than we are, but neither do we need to insist that everyone recognize these things. We can be humble in this way because we know that God knows who we are, and nothing we do escapes his notice. Through Jesus, he honors us, even when others fail to do so when they should.

And we should live with a recognition that everything we are, and everything we are capable of doing, are gifts from God, not something we somehow got for ourselves. It is not as if we were smart, or beautiful, or strong because we designed our own physical bodies. This is true, even when we have worked hard to use what we have. For example, say I have worked hard to study the Bible and be good at teaching it to others. But I was given the ability to learn and understand, and without that gift, my hard work would not have amounted to much. If I had not been given the opportunity to take time to learn and to have good people to teach me, my hard work would have come to nothing. Even my own motivation and self-discipline to work hard was originally given to me by God. This is true of each one of us, no matter what area of life we have become good at. True humility recognizes these things.

It might be helpful to use the road analogy. This is a smaller road, the road of true humility. On one side is the ditch of no humility (overt pride) and the other is false humility. So, false humility is something different from the real thing. False humility is a tool used by some to try to either shame or control other people. It can be very dangerous, because it is also, often, very subtle. Someone who is humble in a false way puts their pious Christian behavior on display. It is hard to argue with them, because they seem so spiritual and right. They might even say words that are good, but you can see from their tone that something else is going on. They often find ways demonstrate (sometimes without even saying it) that you aren’t as religious as they are. Some of these people might also insist upon some sort of outward pious behavior. This could involve telling people that they must fast at certain times, or implying that they ought to pray a certain way, or do certain specific good works. Usually, you will feel like you have to do these things in order for such a person to accept you as a real Christian. Now, it is good to fast. It is good to do good works. But we cannot insist upon certain fasts or certain good works. Especially, it is wrong to think that those things earn us special favor in the eyes of God.

Paul warns about two additional types of things that such people might be involved in. First the worship of angels. This is more or less a literal translation of the Greek, and it leaves us a with a slight problem. Does it mean that certain people worship angels? Or does it mean that some people claim to know how the angels worship God, and insist that we should worship the same way?

We might not be wrong to take it both ways, but I lean toward the second, for various reasons. In the first place, Paul is talking to Christians, and Christians are pretty clear that we must worship God alone, and never worship anyone else, not even an angel. In the Bible, several times, angels themselves told people not to worship them. (for example, Revelation 19:9-10)

Paul has been talking about things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and the way we worship falls mostly into that category, so I think that this the point here. We know that there are some things we should do as we worship (like praising God, and praying, celebrating the Lord’s Supper) but the way we do those things is more or less up to us, as long as we honor the Lord. We are certainly never told to find out how angels worship, and then to imitate that.

The next thing Paul warns about it someone who has an unhealthy obsession with visions, and is probably proud about the visions and spiritual experiences she has had. As I describe this, keep the idea of the ditches in mind. All of these things might be done in healthy ways that honor God and encourage other Christians. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. At the same time, many people do engage in behavior that seems spiritual on the surface, but is full of false humility, real pride and with no true connection to Jesus, the head of the body.

Let me describe some of what Paul is warning about. For several years, I tried to be a part of a certain pastors’ group. I never felt comfortable in that group. One reason I didn’t like it is because whenever we met, it sounded to me like the pastors were boasting, under cover of false humility. They might say things like this:

“We felt like we ought to hold a revival. We brought 176 souls to Jesus in one week.  All we were doing was stepping out in obedience to the Lord, and he provided.”

When I write these words, I realize that you can’t hear the tone of voice, or see the expression. But when it was spoken, it was clear that this person was proud as a peacock about the revival, and felt pretty sure that 176 people came to the altar because he was the best preacher this side of Memphis. These are spiritual words. We should be glad that 176 people came to Jesus (if in fact that’s truly what happened). He gave lip-service to the idea that it was God who did it, but he made sure to not only tell us the number of people, but also to emphasize his own act of stepping out in obedience. This is someone who uses spiritual words and spiritual activities to build himself up, especially in contrast to others.

Another time we pastors were gathered around a meal, and someone volunteered to bless the food. His prayer probably lasted three minutes, which is a long time when you’re hungry, and completely unnecessary for a table prayer. Certainly, the “thank you for the food part,” took less than ten seconds, and the rest of the prayer was spent on other things. Mostly what I remember is that his prayer proved that he was eloquent, and spiritual, and that he had a great speaking voice. It felt like a competition, and he had just thrown down a challenge. He even sort of smirked when he was done, sort of like: “Try and beat that, fellas.” That was the last day I spent with that gathering.

Now, it is good for pastors to gather together. It is good to talk about what’s going on with our ministries. It’s good to pray. But we can do that in a way that is genuine and that builds each other up. Or, as with my experiences, we can engage in false humility.

I was part of another prayer group for about two years. I really connected with some of the people there. But prayer became a performance. Everyone began to pray very long prayers, with many words where few words would have been sufficient. Their attitude was something like, “Why use two sentences when we could make it last five minutes?” Their voices trembled with emotion, and their words were replete with thick eloquence. In short, they were showing off. Every week I thought of what Jesus said:

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (ESV, Matthew 6:5-8)

Jesus says, don’t do that, don’t be like them, yet these Christians did that again and again, every week for the two years I was with them, and presumably much longer.

Let’s cover the next thing Paul mentions: an obsession with visions. I believe in the fullness of the work of the Holy Spirit today. I believe the Spirit empowers miracles of all kinds – everything that we see in the New Testament is still happening today, and can still happen among you and I. But once again, there are ditches here. One ditch is to say that God does not speak in any way at all except through the Bible. The other ditch is to become obsessed with the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. People who are obsessed are often much more interested in the supernatural activities than they are in the fact that the Spirit of God lives inside those who trust Jesus, and has power to change lives from the inside out. They are very concerned about the outward, dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, while they do not cultivate the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their own daily lives: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

The Spirit of God will never contradict what is written in the Bible. So, if someone speaks about a vision that does not seem to be in accordance with the Bible, then that vision is not from the Holy Spirit.

Some folks may have prophecies or visions that don’t directly contradict the Bible. However, they seem to give as much, or more, weight to the visions as to the Bible. The fact that they have a supernatural experience makes them feel superior to those who have not. Their focus is not on Jesus, and not on the Bible, which reveals Jesus to us. Instead, their focus is on their own special revelation, which, even if it is genuine, is not as important as the Bible.

I want to speak about a few more types of people who might try to disqualify us (or make us believe we are disqualified) from the kingdom of God. For instance, I know a couple of people who live by faith in a fairly unique way. They don’t have regular jobs. They wake up in the morning, and look for whatever opportunities the Lord seems to be putting before them, and, as best they can, they follow his leading. They have some amazing and wonderful stories of God’s work and provision. There are also problems and pitfalls with this sort of life that, sadly, these people seem blind to. They might empty their bank accounts for a homeless person they just met, but then they go home and refuse to help their families with simple household chores. They are focused on big dramatic gestures, and they are easily bored or irritated by the ordinary things involved with following Jesus every day.

Related to this are people who feel a certain kind of calling on their lives, and then they try to impose their unique calling onto everyone else. The two I mentioned above seem to think that everyone should live the way they do. Here’s another example: suppose I am called to overseas missionary work. If I was an immature Christian, I might think that my passion for missions means that every single Christian should be a missionary. If I met someone who claimed to be a Christian, yet they weren’t missionaries, I would judge them. Now, I could make a pretty good case from the Bible that missions is important. But I might overlook the fact that if everyone went overseas as missionaries, there would be no Christians left in my home country to lead people to Jesus, and, also, no one left to give financial support to all the missionaries.

We are all called to follow Jesus. Certain parts of following Him are the same for every single person. But we are also all unique members of the body of Christ. Just because one person is called to a certain type of ministry and lifestyle, does not mean every person is:

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:14)

17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:17-20)

Our text here is to remind us that we should not let such people disqualify us. They aren’t better Christians than you, because you, dear friends have Jesus. Jesus is the sum total of what any of us has – no Christian has any more, or any less than Jesus. Long winded eloquent prayers do not make us into God’s favorite disciples.  Supernatural experiences and visions cannot replace the everyday, ordinary life of following Jesus, and they sometimes even hinder people from day-to-day discipleship. Don’t be fooled by their cloak of piousness. You, dear friends, focus on Jesus. He is the head from which the holy body is nourished and grows. If you want true life, abundant, everlasting life, spend your time, energy and strength on Jesus, getting closer to him.