Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg

with Tom Fuller

The Colossian Heresy Part 2

Colossians 2:16-23

There?s an old Christian saying I want to steal to introduce the second half of the Colossian heresy. You may have heard it: ?You?re too heavenly minded to be of earthly good.? We mean it to say that you focus so much on going to be with the Lord that you forget that your job is to share the gospel here on earth. I want to borrow that saying and add another: ?You?re too earthly good to be heavenly minded.?

So what do I mean by these two? Simply that this is where the Colossians found themselves?caught between two competing ideas, both of which run counter to the gospel. In their midst were Jewish ?supposed? Christians who said in order for the Colossians to ?complete? their Christian experience they needed two things: to follow the Jewish traditions and to focus on mediators rather than on God Himself.

With the former they became so good on earth that they really didn?t need the Man sent from heaven to save them: Jesus of Nazareth. With the latter they focused so much on the supernatural that they missed the man of flesh that came to give them eternal life: Jesus the Messiah.

Today we know these tendencies as legalism and spiritism. Legalism is worshiping your efforts more than Jesus? efforts on your behalf and spiritism is worshiping other spiritual beings more than God Himself.

The Colossians were in danger of buying into this heresy and so Paul, dripping with irony, shows that the ones in danger were really the heretics. He?s just finished showing that Jesus put all religions and institutions of man to shame?stripping them of their power and leading them in a military procession?showing us as the booty he obtained by raiding the enemy camp.

Now he attacks the foundations of the heretical argument in verses 16-23.

16 ? 17

What was happening was the Jewish people in the congregation were telling the Colossians that they were not really a part of God?s family unless they followed the Jewish regulations regarding circumcision (2:11-13). They said the Law (as they saw it) was keeping the other members of the Colossian church from God (2:14). This is the idea of ?judge? in verse 16.

Paul says not to let anyone tell you that you are excluded from God?s family based on their tradition, no matter how good it sounds. In verse 16 there are two categories of tradition mentioned: ?food and drink? which meant the Jewish kosher laws (which had grown to include ?wine? or ?drink?) and the Jewish holy days. The words: ?festival, new moon, or Sabbath day? neatly correspond to great annual festivals, monthly celebrations, and weekly Sabbaths (see Ezek 45:17, and Hosea 2:11). If you were circumcised, followed the kosher laws and observed the holy days you were a part of God?s family; otherwise you were not.

Paul says this does not in fact preclude anyone from belonging to God because it is a contrast between the Old and New Covenant. The old circumcision was of the physical flesh given to Abram, the new circumcision is of the soul given by the Messiah. All the regulations of the Law were fulfilled by Jesus perfectly so we could depend on Him, not them, to make us part of God?s family.

Paul says that all the things of the Old Covenant are ?shadows? of the real thing?the Messiah Jesus. Every bit of the Law, every story, every hero, every prophecy in the Old Testament?they all point to something?Someone. Paul here is using some irony in verse 17. The word ?shadow? (skia) is contrasted with ?substance? (Greek: soma = body). So even as the Jews focused on the body for circumcision, what they ate and drank, and the dates they commemorated?all things to do with the fleshly body?the true ?body? is that of Jesus.

Jesus is our Sabbath rest because we can rest from works in Him (Hebrews 4:10). The great feasts also represent the aspects of God?s salvation and redemption of the world through Jesus. Many believe the first four have already been fulfilled and the final three will be when Jesus returns:

  1. Passover points to the Messiah as sacrificial Lamb (Lev 23:5, 1 Cor 5:7)
  2. Unleavened Bread (Lev 23:6) pointed to the Messiah?s sinless life (no leaven, no sin)
  3. First Fruits (Lev 23:10) pointed to the Messiah?s resurrection from the dead as first fruits of God?s kingdom in Christ (1 Cor 15:20)
  4. Pentecost (Lev 23:16) pointed to the great harvest of souls and the gift of the Holy Spirit to Jew and Gentile. This was promised by Jesus as He poured out His Spirit and began the church age.
  5. Trumpets could point to the rapture of the church (1 Thes 4:13-18)
  6. Day of Atonement points to the Second Coming of Christ when the Jews will repent and turn to Christ as their Messiah (Zech 12:10, Romans 11:1-6)
  7. Booths signifies when God will once again ?tabernacle? or live with His people during the Millennium (Micah 4:1-7).

So if verses 16-17 involve Jewish ?Christians? judging others, verse 18 involves them playing umpire and telling the Colossians they are disqualified because they didn?t follow their rules.


Verse 18 calls out two of the practices of these ?super Christians?: fasting and the withholding of certain foods in order to abase the body so as to prepare themselves for visions of the supernatural. These people focused so much on the Law having been given by angels that they either worshiped the angels themselves or felt they participated in literal angelic worship of God. They focused on anything supernatural. Boy, is this dangerous! I spoke to a man once who had been in the highest caste of Hinduism. He had visions of supernatural beings regularly. Once becoming a Christian he realized he was seeing demons?oddly the visions were very similar to that experienced while high on LSD (this was in the 1970s when that sort of thing was popular).

My point is that opening yourself up to focusing on the supernatural instead of Jesus really provides an opening for the enemy to drag you around and get you to worship something other than God. You begin to worship the experience rather than the Father. By becoming enamored by the spirit realm (which inflates the mind but is of no value) you are actually unspiritual and miss the point of it all: Jesus.


The phrasing here can actually suggest that these Jews never grasped the head?and were a little like the headless horseman. By focusing on legalism they fell short of Jesus who fulfilled the Law. And by focusing on angels and supernatural beings they went off the mark of the real head and life-giver of Christ. They claimed their ways helped them grow more ?complete? but in fact they were more like tumors growing in their hearts, sucking away the true life giving of Jesus and serving only themselves without benefiting the body of Christ.

20 ? 23

Verse 20 should be contrasted with Chapter 3, verse 1. The two part experience of the Christian is to ?die? to something (this age) and then to be ?raised? to something else (the age to come). First the dying part:

Paul in essence is saying that dying with Jesus means the specific rules and regulations promulgated by the Jewish ?super? Christians no longer should have sway over you. He isn?t saying there are no rules, no code of conduct. Being a Christian means that God actually writes His law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). In the next chapter Paul outlines what this new character looks like. But Paul refers to these specific rules as man-made and no longer of value in reflecting the character of God. The problem, again, with legalism is that it focuses on outward behavior instead of inward transformation.

Paul talks about the absurdity of allowing man-made rules to once again dominate our thinking in two ways?and comes from Matthew 15:1-20.

1) Food can?t be reused. So making rules about its use are not valuable in changing character.

Matthew 15:17 ?Don?t you realize that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated? 18 But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man. 19 For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. 20 These are the things that defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man.?

Thoughts and values?now these are not destroyed by usage and, in fact, are reused often and so are more important to focus on.

2) The fact that people made up this stuff is a restatement of what Jesus said:

?They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men.?

(Matthew 15:9 HCSB)

Paul suggests that going back into legalism seems smart at its surface. If what we do with our bodies is the problem, we need to beat the body into submission so we can focus more on what?s spiritual. But his point is that legalism does nothing to actually change behavior long term. You really can?t legislate morality. Doing the right thing comes from 1) having a right relationship with God and 2) letting God?s character become your character. Our behavior flows from our values?from the inside?not from outside rules that we blindly follow.

This kind of behavior only leads to the making of more and more rules to follow. It?s why the Jews had hundreds of regulations on what you could or could not do on the Sabbath.


So are there any modern day equivalents to this heresy? Yes, I believe so and it?s important for us to pay attention to them. Instead of naming names, let?s look at the general characteristics of the two types of heresy found here in Colossians:


Legalism is the worship of self above God.

Be careful about using the Old Testament Law as the behavior code for Christians?especially the food and festival laws such as Sabbath Day observances.

In general be watchful of doing things to get God to feel a certain way about you or do certain things for you in return for your piety.

So how can we tell if legalism is at hand?

  • Emphasis on external behavioral codes rather than inward character change
  • Emphasis on accomplishments rather than service
  • Emphasis on behavior of the Christian, rather than relationship with the Messiah
  • Emphasis on interpreting the New Testament in light of the Old Testament, instead of the other way around.
  • An emphasis on learning the many rules of behavior over studying the Scriptures.
  • Emphasis on visions and/or supernatural manifestations over the truth revealed in Scripture
  • Strange occurrences and utterances have more weight than the Scriptures
  • Emphasis on an emotional experience as a gauge of spiritual level of maturity and continued blessing from God
  • Pleasure is the key with an emphasis on the personal experience of the believer, rather than a sacrificial life in service of the gospel


Spiritism is putting any other supernatural being (real or not) in front of God, or even as a way to approach God. Beware of emotion-based appeals, church-specific doctrine, praying to ?saints? and cult-like behavior (personality of the leader, insiders-only, mass hypnosis, etc).

So how can we be both heavenly and earthly good? We find that out next time!