It is hard to keep one’s guard up all the time in public by making sure the face mask’s on and social distancing’s in place during a pandemic. Some will tell us that the Coronavirus is not such a big deal, not much different than the flu, and that it will soon pass from the scene by natural causes. Something similar can occur in the spiritual realm, when it comes to false teaching, as in the case of the Colossian heresy. It is all too easy to let down one’s guard over the heart and mind. As with the Coronavirus, one has to guard against “myths, rumors and misinformation.” One must remain vigilant and take the necessary precautions to guard against infection (Refer here as well). In no way, shape or form did Paul consider the Colossian Heresy merely a spiritual flu. It was far more dangerous and devastating.
The Apostle Paul warns the Colossian church to remain vigilant. As noted in part 1 of this two-part series, Paul writes from house arrest for the faith in Rome to this church in danger of cardiac arrest in Asia Minor. Please refer to that first entry here at this link for the backdrop to the context, including the heretical teaching that could kill the Colossian church spiritually. As was noted in that first article, even with Covid-19, some who are experiencing respiratory distress are also enduring heart damage and dying of cardiac arrest. Whether on the physical or spiritual level, being able to breathe is vital to one’s health.
This leads us to the point we wish to emphasize in part 2 of this series. To contextualize Paul’s words to our present context and imagery, Paul exhorts the Colossian church to breathe in Christ rather than inhale the false teaching that could suffocate and lead to cardiac arrest. Paul exhorts the Colossian church not to let anyone suffocate them. How might suffocation occur? By allowing people to pass judgment on them and disqualify them. For Paul, the ultimate safeguard against contracting the spiritual Coronavirus is immunizing believers by capturing people’s imagination through Christ. In what follows, we will unpack what such judgment and disqualification might look like and what captivation of the imagination by Christ involves.
Paul writes in his letter to the Colossian church:
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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 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, 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. 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—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 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 (Colossians 2:16-23; ESV).
Paul warns them not to allow others to “pass judgment” on them in matters pertaining to food and drink, a festival, new moon, or Sabbath. (Colossians 2:16) Why? They are but “a shadow of the things to come.” “The substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17).
Paul warns the same believers not to allow anyone to “disqualify” them with “ascetism and worship of angels,” going on and on “in detail about visions,” “puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind” (Colossians 2:18). Why? They are “not holding fast to the head,” who is Christ, from whom flows spiritual nourishment for the entire church body (Colossians 2:19).
Why would we fixate on shadow matters of external religious observances when the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17)? We are dead with Christ to the elemental spirits and world system (Colossians 2:20) and alive to Christ. “Do not handle,” “taste” or “touch” regulations appear profitable to self-made religion, ascetism, and the severe treatment of the body (Colossians 2:21-23), but they have no impact on stopping fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:23).
Perhaps today you are not dealing with “do’s and don’ts” religious observances. Perhaps you are not focused on ascetism and angel worship, at least not in some obvious manner. But as F. F. Bruce and others have argued, the fallen principalities and powers or elemental spirits manifest themselves in various other secular ways in the modern period. The world or elemental spirits cause us to fixate on externalities of appearance, like lighter and darker pigmentation, facial structure, weight, and body shape. What drives many of us to value or devalue people based on these external features? While we should see such things as color, and not be “color blind,” for example, we should see more than color. We should understand people in the fullness of their lives and complexity of their stories.
How often do we view people based on what we can get or extract from them, sizing them up based on their perceived “market value”? As Martin Luther King, Jr., argued in “Beyond Vietnam,” we need to move from a culture of things to persons. He goes on,
I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin, we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
The need to move from a culture of things to persons has only intensified since King’s day. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks of how the market ideology has impacted Judaism negatively. The same could be said for Christianity when he writes,
The concept of the holy is precisely the domain in which the worth of things is not judged by their market price or economic value. And this fundamental insight of Judaism is all the more striking given its respect for the market within the marketplace. The fatal conceit for Judaism is to believe that the market governs the totality of our lives, when it in fact governs only a limited part of it, that which concerns the goods we think of as being subject to production and exchange. There are things fundamental to being human that we do not produce; instead we receive from those who came before us and from God Himself. And there are things that we may not exchange, however high the price.
Speaking as a Christian, when we view one another through the eyes of Jesus, we see people as created in God’s image. When we view one another in relation to him, we see everyone, and every member of the church body, as indispensable (1 Corinthians 12:22). People are far more than what the markets suggests is their value. Such market valuation is always in flux, never constant, ever fickle. When we operate by market standards to evaluate one another’s worth, we cannot rest or breathe. Our value is always in flux based on how well we perform.
No human is chattel. Every black life matters. We must nail racism, economic exploitation, and militarism to the cross. We must not allow the elemental spirits of the world to cause us to find our worth and dignity outside of Jesus. The principalities and powers may manifest themselves today in secular forms of ascetism and angel worship, including perhaps such things as anorexia and facial cosmetic operations to look more western, the worship of fame and celebrity, youth, income, and professional position. We can get lost in apocalyptic visions and conspiracy theories that parallel gnostic cults, like QAnon. As Paul argues, we so easily go into vast details on all kinds of things but miss out on Jesus Christ in whom all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form. We only find fullness in him (See Colossians 2:9-10).
If we wish to breathe freely, we must find our worth in and through Jesus. He has nailed to the cross those laws old and new in whatever religious or secular form that devalue and dehumanize us and that lead us to devalue and dehumanize others. Jesus has cancelled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:14-15; ESV).
Paul would have us contend against the spiritual version of the Coronavirus today by seeing our value through identity with Christ Jesus. Those who find their identity and worth in him, and not in their perceived market value, or how others perceive us, is critically important. Otherwise, we will allow others to judge and condemn us as being worthless, as disqualifying us as not measuring up to whatever fickle and fictitious standards they happen to put in place. You are persons, not things. You are created in God’s image and have infinite worth. Don’t live in the shadows and fixate on externals or on visions of the sensuous mind. Don’t reduce others to means to ends whereby their value is perceived in terms of what you can get from them. Build relationships and communities where we see everyone as indispensable through Jesus who shares his life and worth with us. Hold fast to Jesus, who is the head. The substance belongs to Christ.
F. F. Bruce contextualizes the discussion of the principalities and powers in Colossians 2:13-15 to the modern period when he writes, “The elemental spirits through whom the law was held to have been mediated may mean nothing to modern man. Angles and demons may be unknown to him by name. But is not modern man unprecedentedly aware of powerful and malignant ‘demonic’ forces operating against him, which he is quite unable to master, whether by his individual strength or by united action? These forces may be Frankenstein monsters of his own creation; they may be subliminal horrors over which he has no conscious control.” F. F. Bruce, ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 10, Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, by E. K. Simpson and F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), page 241.
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard, with an introduction by Andrew Young (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 2001), pages 157-58.
Jonathan Sacks, “Markets and Morals,” in First Things, August 2000; https://www.firstthings.com/article/2000/08/markets-and-morals. See also Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012).
The Mao Clinic observes, “Anorexia isn’t really about food. It’s an extremely unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening way to try to cope with emotional problems. When you have anorexia, you often equate thinness with self-worth.”